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Zettel Film Reviews » The Other Boleyn Girl – two women, two sisters, two outcomes

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The Other Boleyn Girl – two women, two sisters, two outcomes

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The Other Boleyn Girl – Justin Chadwick

Robert Bolt and Fred Zinneman set the bar high. A Man For All Seasons won 6 Oscars in 1967 – best Picture, Director, Actor (Paul Schofield) Screenplay, Cinematography, Costume Design. Although set in the same chaotic period of English History, the special angle of interest Phillippa Gregory takes first in her book and as co-writer of this screenplay, finds no appearance of, or even reference to, Sir Thomas More who lay at the heart of Bolt’s play and Zinneman’s film. This is curious as the central drama of what happened to the Boleyn girls, Mary and Anne, was driven by the dispute between Henry and his one time friend Thomas More.

The history here is fearsomely complicated and marks a defining moment in our political past. More and Henry were implacably opposed on the need to reject the authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church, the more so because Henry’s motivation was unprincipled, political, and secular; whereas Sir Thomas More’s was uncompromisingly spiritual and religious. Their conflict arose because Henry’s wife Katherine of Aragon was unable to provide him with a male heir. Already having taken a mistress in the lesser known Mary Boleyn and fathered an illegitimate son with her, Henry needed his annulment to marry Mary’s sister and new object of his lust, Anne, so that any son born of that union could inherit the throne.

History is not my thing. Philosophically I’m not at all sure through the fog of our contemporary moral instincts and mores, we can even begin to understand the motivations and sentiments of historical characters occupying a social and political world more alien from ours than any remote aboriginal people alive today. Indeed it seems to me that it may be a historical fallacy to believe we can. Nowhere is this problem more acute than in trying to understand the two women whose lives and loves lie at the heart of this film. I confess to having known nothing of the ‘other’ Boleyn girl Mary (Scarlett Johansson) which I guess is part of Gregory’s point. The trouble here is that having purged her narrative of most of the underlying religious and political conflict for which so many heads rolled, and then said look past Anne to the impressive and undervalued Mary; Mary has to be interesting enough to carry the weight of attention. And as portrayed in the film, she really isn’t. Gregory’s, or at least Chadwick’s Anne is merely a capricious, wilful, sexually manipulative madam, out for the main chance and willing to sacrifice anyone, including her sister to these simply personal and selfish desires. Chadwick’s Anne is not a convincingly ambitious woman with a passion to be Queen which is the usual perception of her. Gregory therefore plays down the very qualities historically associated with Anne Boleyn that make her resonate with contemporary women and our response to them.

Mary by contrast, whether by accident or design, is portrayed as manifesting (personifesting?) all the deepest stereotypes women fight so hard against. She is motherly and submissive; beautiful but innocent and loving; obedient to the outrageous demands of men, especially her father and uncle who essentially prostitute her to the King for wealth and position. ‘Passive’ women are rapidly becoming Johannson’s speciality (you could not for instance swap the casting here). Characters who are beautiful, reactive but essentially passive before the events that drive their lives. Essentially victims. Perhaps Art imitating life? At best Mary as written is a Mother Earth figure, surviving, whatever personal indignities she suffers, to stay alive and raise children married to a good man. But there is a fine dividing line between having a deep, loving, forgiving heart – and being a wimp. Gregory has therefore leeched the drama out of both sides of the emotional equation she wants to engage us with. Anne is not so feisty or special as we’ve always thought her to be: and undervalued Mary turns out to have a character, however stoically impressive, with not enough passion to generate the conflict upon which drama stands or falls. It is a critical difference between a novel and a film.

I can’t really fault the acting: Natalie Portman does well with a thinly written Anne; and Johansson makes the sensual, instinctively giving Mary certainly credible as the sister to whom Henry displayed sexual tenderness; in contrast to the coquettish Anne who he virtually rapes (could a King rape in the 16th century? You see the problem). Eric Bana is an adequate Henry who unlike past players of the role, at least looks as if women might fancy him, and the rest of the cast support well. Including a rather wasted Kristen Scott Thomas as an underwritten Lady Elizabeth Boleyn.

Technically the film is beautifully integrated. It shows that there is a team of talented people who know each other, working together to create a powerfully consistent sense of atmosphere, period, pace and tone. Cinematographer Kieran McGuigan and Editor Paul Knight both worked extensively with Chadwick on several TV series including Spooks, Hustle and Bleak House. They manage to create a much needed sense of visual tension with a close, claustrophobic style perhaps derived from their TV experience. Spooks certainly was often visually inventive. The uncredited music works well in a straightforward romantic way.

I enjoyed the film; which for an historical drama for me is a good sign. It would help if they hadn’t named all the girls of the day from a list of about 4 – Mary, Anne, Catherine or Jane – but with a bit of homework I think I’ve sorted most of them out. (And I suppose Queen Tracy or Princess Sharon wouldn’t have resonated with aristocratic hauteur – with apologies to any Tracy or Sharon readers). It was interesting to know more of Mary simply because she was unknown to me before. However being unjustifiably undervalued, unknown and uncredited by history is not the same as being a character that engages our interest and generates passion that is the fuel of drama.

That the more I learn of the history of my country, the more ashamed I am of it, is I guess my problem. Henry, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth et al have always fascinated us. Perhaps because, rather than in spite of the squalid, hubristic ambition, visceral belief in the importance of blood and line that generated actions of shocking depravity and inhumanity. If this is patriotism, then you are welcome to it. Indeed I begin to think the greatest gift the British people have given to the world is the implacable, indefatigable, at times totally irrational, will to dissent – from all power structures, all leaders, Kings, Protectors or even politicians. Why? Because they’re there.

(March 2008)

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