Anne Boleyn is arguably one of the most important and fascinating women in English History. As well as giving birth to our greatest Monarch, Elizabeth I, her relationship with Henry VIII caused the break with Rome and the founding of the Church of England. There have been dozens of films trying to portray her life and accomplishments and it tends to be a very hit and miss affair. The Other Boleyn Girl is definitely a miss.
Adapted from Phillipa Gregory’s 2001 novel of the same name, the film tells the story of Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman) and her sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson) as they both attempt to seduce King Henry VIII (Eric Bana) in order to advance their ambitious family’s position. The film follows the two sisters from childhood through to their own relationships with the King and ends with the execution of Anne and her brother.
I’ll be very open about this, I didn’t like The Other Boleyn Girl. Regardless of the fact that neither the acting nor the casting is that great, the film is littered with historical inaccuracies and oversights that are frankly ridiculous to anyone with every a basic understanding of the major events in Anne’s life. We’ll get to the truly bad stuff later on but I’ll ease you into it with the acting. I’m not a big Natalie Portman fan but I know Scarlett Johansson can act well, there is very little of that here. I don’t know if the dialogue threw them in terms of the way people spoke at the time or whether it’s just bad writing or directing, but I struggled to find anything about their performances compelling. The only time I found myself enjoying Portman’s performance was when she has a panicked rant in front of her sister regarding her failure to provide Henry with an heir, that worked but nothing else really did. The casting is another great issue, Natalie Portman is too conventionally attractive to play Anne Boleyn. Anne is not the prettiest girl and she knows it, instead relying on her wit, intellect and charm to see her through. Anne ought to be played by someone relatively average looking.
I can’t blame Portman’s casting too much, the acting has to receive its fair share. Anne Boleyn was an intelligent, witty woman. If she were at a party, you’d be drawn to her, you’d want to talk with her and you’d want her to like you. Anne could also be vicious, cruel, overly ambitious and arrogant to the point where she was bad-mouthing high-ranking members of the English aristocracy to their face. The film doesn’t balance these two sides of her well enough. We don’t see nearly enough of the witty Anne and when we see the vicious Anne, she’s too vicious and we quickly end up hating her. The portrayal of Henry VIII is another example of bad writing. The casting isn’t bad, (even though Henry was ginger and Eric Bana has brown hair but whatever, I’m nitpicking) but the character in the film doesn’t feel like Henry VIII. Henry was intelligent, competitive and fiercely proud. Anne’s control over him needed far more emphasis because it shows Henry as a very impetuous man, the sort of person who tends to swing, like a pendulum, from one woman to another. It wasn’t just a matter of refusing two presents and being done with it. From what we know, Henry appears to be genuinely besotted with Anne, aside from the scene where he pledges himself to her, this isn’t really seen. Anne’s father and uncle are also written terribly. Her father is ambitious but weak and almost entirely subserviant to Anne’s Uncle to appears to be completly immoral. These aren’t characters, they’re stereotypes. In reality, both men were ambitious and self-serving; they were neither cruel nor weak. The only really good piece of casting is that of Catherine of Aragon and, in all honesty, almost all versions of the character are well cast so the achievement is not one to be boasted. Even Showtime’s The Tudors (2007-2010) got that right.
If they can do it, anyone can
By far the biggest flaws with the film are the historical inaccuracies. I’m not entirely sure where to begin with this, the film is just riddled with them. Mary being sent to France isn’t mentioned, Anne was sent to France earlier than she is in the film, numerous events happen at the wrong time and in the wrong place, Catherine of Aragon’s death isn’t mentioned, Anne’s other miscarriages aren’t mentioned, Anne’s other alleged affairs aren’t mentioned, Thomas and Anne’s alledge incest was almost certainly fabricated, the deformed foetus Anne miscarries is first mentioned in Catholic propaganda in the 17th century and is almost certainly nonsense, Anne’s last communion where she denies all charges in the sight of God and therefore risking the eternal damnation of her own soul isn’t mentioned. The inaccuracies go behind having to cut a few things out to same time, it’s as though someone has taken a chainsaw to history. Special mention here has to go to Thomas Cromwell and Cardinal Wolsey, two prime movers behind the break with Rome and important figures in Anne’s life. How important? Well, seeing as there is a significant number of academics who believe that Cromwell plotted Anne’s downfall and the fact that Wolsey’s death was caused by his failure to secure Henry’s divorce from Catherine, I’d say they’re both pretty frigging important. This is an opinion the film does not share. Cromwell has one scene during Anne’s trial and Wolsey doesn’t have a line and barely five seconds of screen time. This is unforgivable. The way the film treats these two characters proves that it is not interested in showing the life of Anne Boleyn as realistically as possible, instead opting to portray her as an uber bitch and her sister as a doormat. I wouldn’t dislike it as much if it at least did the mindless entertainment aspect of it well but if I’m honest the historical inaccuracies disturb me so much that I’m totally disinterested in the film’s story, and chances are most other people will feel the same. Everybody knows the basics of the Anne Boleyn story, everybody knows how crucial Thomas Cromwell is to it and most people will probably be aware of how absent he is. Say what you like about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2007) but at least it shows the importance of Cromwell. The story of Anne Boleyn’s rise and fall is one of the most interesting and important in English history and for a film centered around her life to completely gloss over key aspects is simply appalling. If you are going to attempt to portray the life of a truly fascinating and important woman then make sure you put some effort into getting the facts right, instead of avoiding key aspects completely.
A truly terrible film that is riddled with historical inaccuracies and missing key players. The acting is generally poor, as is the casting; the film doesn’t even work on an entertainment level. One of the worst films that I have ever seen. The costumes are alright.