There have been a number of movies made over the decades about King Henry VIII and his several wives. The story is well-known to most of us. This is the story which provides the context for The Other Boleyn Girl, a newly released film which is an adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s best-selling 2002 novel. Starring Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson and Eric Bana the film works as both a romance and a study of how power corrupts people and families. It also provides an unusual opportunity for these two young starlets to show a certain skill in an entirely different movie genre.
The film views its familiar slice of 16th-century history through the eyes of two Boleyn sisters: Anne (Natalie Portman) and Mary (Scarlett Johansson). I was told by a reader of the novel on leaving the theater that the film did not allow for the detail and development of the characters seen in the novel but then this is common when such a work is brought to a film script.
When the marriage between King Henry VIII (Eric Bana) and Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent) goes sour, because Katherine could not produce a male heir, the ambitious Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) sees an opportunity for power and wealth. He tries to maneuver his equally conniving elder daughter, Anne, into the king’s bed. But when the somewhat dull-witted King Henry actually visits the Boleyn estate, he falls not for Anne but for her younger sister, Mary. The problem is Mary is already happily married so she has absolutely no interest in being the king’s mistress. Under pressure from her father and uncle she surrenders to the pressure to have a private tryst with Henry, who desires an affair with the impressive Mary.
The rejected Anne, however, feels betrayed by her sister Mary’s true love for the King. But when Mary is laid up with a very difficult pregnancy and Anne returns from a sojourn in France (sent there as exile to learn her lessons) with a renewed sexual confidence, the movie becomes a sexual power struggle between the two Boleyn siblings. This part of the film works exceptionally well, at least in my view.
With Anne’s return, and her new found ability to lure the King, Henry becomes increasingly obsessed with Anne and their affair pushes England into a national and religious crisis. (Meanwhile Mary did bear Henry the son he desired but he was only to become the bastard son of the King, not an heir, since Mary and Henry never married!) The basic story of Henry’s infidelities is known to most who have any knowledge of English history but the film tells this familiar story quite well in a remarkably short space of time.
The movie is adapted for screen by Peter Morgan who quite successfully scales back the novel but then allows the film to retain the political shrewdness and excitement of his Oscar-nominated script for The Queen, another superb movie.
One critic rightly notes that "The film has precious little epic sweep . . . British director Justin Chadwick (TV’s "Bleak House") also manages to nail just about every scene and consistently gets the best from a large cast of quality actors that includes Kristin Scott Thomas, David Morrissey and Jim Sturgess." He adds that Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson both reveal "a depth, breadth, stature and chemistry with one other that makes the movie come alive"
The Other Boleyn Girl is rated PG-13 for mature themes and sexual content (No nudity). It runs 114 minutes and is directed by Justin Chadwick. I give it three and half stars out of four. The majority of film critics who previewed The Other Boleyn Girl did not give it as favorable a rating but I throughly enjoyed it. But then I majored in English and American history so maybe my objectivity was not there the day I saw it.