“Well, if it isn't the Boleyn Whores. Two former ladies of mine. Hiding in shadows.”
- Queen Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent), The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)
(I was flattered to be asked to write a review of this movie by Elena Maria Vidal. There are some spoilers in this review, but given that it's about the Tudors, I don't think it will come as too much of a shock to anyone!)
In 2008, my housemate Beth returned to our house in Oxford late one evening from a trip to see the new movie, The Other Boleyn Girl. I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to see it, and wasn’t even sure I was going to – I’d read the book and that was traumatic enough. I could still remember the perfectly-arched eyebrow of savage incredulity which my high school friend Patricia reserved for anyone who suggested she read it... Anyway, Beth knocked on my bedroom door and I opened expecting to see her with her customary can of hairspray in her hands, maniacally spraying all around her. (It was the only way we had figured out how to repel the nuclear-sized spiders which seemed to inexplicably infest our college house.) As I opened the door, I was greeted by a shell-shocked Beth. Naturally, I assumed that we were once again under siege from Arachneus, King of the Spiders, and his eight-legged army and I quickly reached for my deodorant. This time, however, I was wrong. “Oh it’s bad...," she said, "The Other Boleyn Girl... it’s so, so bad... it’s.... it’s bad, Gareth. It’s just really bad. I can't even... I'm never getting those two hours back.”
A breathlessly gleeful phone-call from my friend Emerald a few days later confirmed Beth's review: “Gaz, you’ve got to get down to the nearest cinema and see it immediately. It’s the worst thing in the history of cinema! It’s the most gloriously stupid thing you’ll ever see! I mean, it’s just... no, I mean, oh my god, you have got to see it!” When I did go to see it, with another friend, Emily, it was reassuringly every bit as ghastly as I had been promised. Half-way through, Emily leant over to me and whispered, both confused and contemptuous: “Is this a joke?”
Sadly, Emily, no, it wasn’t. Or, at least, it wasn’t an intentional one.
The Other Boleyn Girl is a loose adaptation of the novel by Philippa Gregory, which is itself (very) loosely based on the life of Anne Boleyn’s sister, the lesser-known Mary Boleyn (?1502 - 1542). Like Anne, Mary was educated in France before returning to England in late adolescence, whereupon she briefly became the mistress of King Henry VIII. At an unknown point, the monarch tired of her and sometime after that (it may have been as long as three years) made his fateful attempt to seduce her younger sister. Unlike Mary, Anne demanded marriage and she got the prize, but ended up paying for it with her life. Mary, in the meantime, had run off with a commoner and lived happily ever after. From these facts, Gregory weaved a best-selling book and from said romance novel, Peter Morgan and Justin Chadwick spun an excruciatingly bad movie.
It requires a certain talent to take the story of the Boleyn sisters’ tragic lives and make them boring but, somehow, The Other Boleyn Girl manages it – in fact, that isn't fair. It doesn’t just manage it, it excels at it. The end result of a plodding, turgid narrative becomes even more baffling when you think about the brilliant cast that was assembled for the movie – Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, Eric Bana, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jim Sturgess, David Morrissey, Juno Temple and Eddie Redmayne. All of them brilliant in other productions, so how exactly did Paramount end-up make something so garishly and insultingly stupid? I don’t know, all I do know is that they did.
To give you a brief, potted storyline of the movie itself – Mary Boleyn (Scarlett Johansson) is the youngest daughter of a country squire, Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) and his aristocratic wife (Kristin Scott Thomas). Mary has recently been married to another country squire, Sir William Carey (Benedict Cumberbatch), when the King of England (Eric Bana) makes a visit to their family home. Mary’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey), has heard rumours that the King’s marriage to Queen Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent) is in difficulties, and he forms a plan to make Mary’s unmarried sister, Anne (Natalie Portman), the King's new mistress. However, the King doesn’t take a shine to Anne, but to Mary instead. Mary is pressured by her family into sleeping with the King, but, once she does, she quickly falls in love with him - because she sees the man behind the Crown, or some other saccharin drivel along those lines. Anne, in the meantime, seduces another woman’s fiancé (Oliver Coleman) and elopes with him, without her family’s permission. (Yes, that’s right, Anne Boleyn had a secret marriage that we didn’t know about. No biggy. After all, how important in the grand scheme of things was the institution of marriage in Anne Boleyn's life?) When she finds out about this naughty behaviour, Mary informs her parents, who banish Anne to France for several months and pretend the marriage never happened. (Which is apparently delightfully easy for them do. Again, as anyone who knows the period well will testify, the Catholic Church was only too happy to allow people to ignore marriages they'd rather not have entered into in the first place. Maybe if Henry VIII had just pretended he couldn't see Katherine of Aragon then the whole nasty business of the Reformation could have been avoided entirely.) Anyway, Mary has by this stage been knocked-up by her royal lover and promptly produces a royal bastard. However, back from France with a now permanent sneer that we are led to believe equates with sex appeal, Anne is out to get revenge on her pregnant sister. She does this by seducing the King. He begs her to sleep with him, but she refuses. Playing hard to get, she finally agrees to love him if he will promise never to see Mary again. This he does outside the door of Mary's bedroom, as she gives birth to his son. Literally, right outside the door. Mary is holding the baby, looking doe-eyed and loving; apparently in 1526, childbirth will leave you looking quite tired, but thankfully it won't mess-up your hair. Henry agrees to Anne's condition, leaving Mary looking upset, but still immaculately coiffed. Now, the whole earth-shattering process of the Great Divorce and the impending Break with Rome begins. The movie deals with it in about 20 seconds. More importantly, Mary has started flirting with a young courtier, (Eddie Redmayne), who is disgusted by the way her family treats her. (At this point we’re led to assume her first husband has died, although it’s never mentioned. Also, note to self: people who like the countryside = good. Marry them immediately.) King Henry, in the meantime, bored of Anne’s refusal to sleep with him, and taunted about his weakness by his soon-to-be ex-wife Katherine, savagely rapes Anne one afternoon. (As you do.) Luckily, neither of them break a sweat, although Anne does end up pregnant and so their marriage is rushed ahead (by which point, we’re also to understand that the English Reformation has happened. England's now Protestant and Anne's wearing dresses with a bit more room around the middle.) Anne gives birth to a daughter and the King takes a mistress. Anne suffers a nervous breakdown and goes eight kinds of crazy. (Not quite Jack Nicholson in the Shining-crazy, more Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.) Then, she has a miscarriage, which seems to have caused her some mild discomfort. Determined to fall pregnant again before the King can realise she’s barren, she begs her brother George (Jim Sturgess) to impregnate her – half an hour after the miscarriage. (Biology, anyone?) At the last minute, George can’t go through with it; however, the initial seduction has been witnessed by George’s jealous wife (Juno Temple), who informs the King. Anne is arrested and executed, as is George. Both go to their deaths sobbing like infants. (For an account of the execution of the real George Boleyn elsewhere on this blog read here. And for an account of the real Anne's death, read here.) Mary takes Anne’s 3 year-old daughter, the future Elizabeth I, to live with her and her new husband in the countryside - the King of England apparently having no qualms about his youngest daughter being reared in the countryside by a total non-entity and a former strumpet.
When I was asked by a friend which bits were true and which weren’t, I started to make an extensive list of everything I could remember that was wrong in the movie, before suddenly boiling it down into the neat sentence of: “All of it: it’s actually all wrong.” And that’s a sentence I stand by after watching the film again. No matter what criticism The Tudors may have received for its inaccuracies, the Showtime series seems like a History Channel documentary compared to this movie. Anyone vaguely acquainted with the Tudor period is likely to require smelling salts thanks to The Other Boleyn Girl’s dozens of historical inaccuracies, all of which are particularly inexcusable, because unlike other productions, The Other Boleyn Girl’s inaccuracies don’t help the story - they hinder it. So, despite having the Oscar-nominated talent of scriptwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon, The Last King of Scotland), The Other Boleyn Girl is a shockingly bad script riddled with clichés, plot-holes and glaring improbabilities. None of the characters have any nuances to them at all. They don't age, they don't change, they don't evolve – the Duke of Norfolk’s a monotone mafioso, Henry VIII is brooding, Mary is nice, Thomas Boleyn is spineless, Katherine of Aragon is a shrill, smug bully, Elizabeth Boleyn is a woman ahead of her time and Anne is a scheming, graceless, vulgar, sociopathic trollop. Anne, in fact, emerges as a cross between the Wicked Witch of the West and Bette Davis in Whatever happened to Baby Jane?; she spends the entire movie gleefully ruining the lives of everyone around her and embarking on an apparent quest to displace Lucifer as all-round bad guy of the universe. Just to make sure everyone realises how bad Anne really is, Mary is set up as her opposite: a doe-eyed, warm-hearted secular saint. (I stress the “secular” because Christianity doesn’t seem to have any impact on these people’s lives whatsoever, in what was probably one of the most religiously-charged periods in human history.)
To give credit where it is due, Natalie Portman does her best with the pantomime villainess of Anne and, when she’s allowed to, she does manage to flesh out a fairly two-dimensional character. She’s certainly far stronger on screen than Scarlett Johansson is as Mary, but that may be something to do with how unspeakably boring the latter’s character is. Eric Bana is almost laughably wooden as Henry VIII and the superb Kristin Scott-Thomas is wasted as the Boleyn matriarch, Lady Elizabeth. Jim Sturgess offers a fine, if fleeting, performance as the girls' luckless gay brother, George, as does Juno Temple as his jealous wife, Jane.
The film’s only saving graces are the occasionally watchable performances from Jim Sturgess, Juno Temple and Kristin Scott-Thomas and Sandy Powell’s beautiful costumes. However, you know it’s been a bad experience when you’re watching the Queen of England’s public execution and you console yourself with the fact that she, at least, didn’t have to live and sit through this movie. With that last point, I'm being flippant, but in the final evaluation there really is nothing in this movie to interest anyone attracted to this period in history and it might have been better for all concerned if the producers had changed the names of all the characters and had the honesty to admit it for what it was - total fiction. Even then, however, I don't think it would have saved The Other Boleyn Girl from being what my flatmate so rightly hailed it as - just a very bad movie.