A Royal Affair | The Other Boleyn Girl at 10

Based on the novel by Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl tells the story of the Boleyn sisters and their separate affairs with Henry VIII. Part costume romance, part political drama, The Other Boleyn Girl is all about sisterly rivalry in the Tudor court.

As Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon disintegrates, ambitious brothers in law the Duke of Norfolk and Sir Thomas Boleyn spot an opportunity. Boleyn orders his daughter Anne (Natalie Portman) to flirt with the King (Eric Bana) in hope that she will become his mistress and thereby improve the family’s position in court. However, it is the younger sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson) who Henry becomes enamoured with. Later, Anne and Henry begin an affair. What happens next should be familiar. It is the path that leads to Henry’s divorce from Catherine, the English Reformation and Anne’s execution.

So, is The Other Boleyn Girl any good? On one level, it’s a solid period drama based on a work of fiction about a historical series of events. This is one to put on during a lazy Sunday afternoon that has gorgeous costumes and sets to admire. The steamy bits are brief enough that it would be bearable to watch with your relatives. It’s the type of film to choose if you want to switch your brain off for a bit.

The Other Boleyn Girl (2) - Headstuff.org
Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman as The Boleyn Sisters Source

 

Re-watching it, the film has several major flaws. First, The Other Boleyn Girl is historically inaccurate in its take on the Boleyn sisters and Henry VIII’s court. The time scale of events is compressed dramatically. The actual courtship between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn lasted for six years until their marriage in 1533 with Anne’s execution taking place three years later. The film gives the impression that all this took place over a couple of months, not over the course of several years.

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Then there is the character of Mary herself. The story makes her the younger sister who does not share her sister’s ambition or assertiveness. A quick Google search suggests there is some doubt about the birth order. Not a big deal? Well, the film also glosses over other details of her life. For instance, Mary also had an affair with the French King and later became estranged from her family. Seriously, the real Mary sounds way more interesting than she’s allowed to be onscreen. The film’s Mary seems to have been written as a contrast to Anne. Then, there’s the sisterly rivalry. For me, it’s overplayed and lacks any emotional punch. But, that’s a consequence of the sisters being written as opposites.

Finally, there’s the uneven performances of the main cast. It really says something when the work of the supporting ensemble is more interesting to watch than the leading performers. Admittedly, The Other Boleyn Girl has an impressive list of actors in the mix including Mark Rylance, Juno Temple, Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne. There is commanding work by Ana Torrent as Catherine of Aragon in a too brief cameo. Best of all is Kristin Scott Thomas, in the small role of Lady Elizabeth Boleyn, who runs off with the whole picture. Her character has the most memorable lines that highlight how her daughters are being “traded like cattle for the amusement and advancement of men”. It’s the closest the film comes to feminist thinking. But, Tudor England wasn’t a society where women had much agency.

The Other Boleyn Girl is one of the countless retellings of the life of Henry VIII and his wives. It’s a crowded field that dissects events that took place over 500 years ago. History is never complete even if we’ve heard the story as many times as we have about Henry VIII and his relationship with Anne Boleyn. Then again, I might be overthinking all of this. Although maybe, there is value in not switching the brain off entirely when watching any story.


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