Other Boleyn Girl with Natalie Portman

Based on the best-selling novel by Philippa Gregory, “The Other Boleyn Girl” is an engrossing and sensual tale of intrigue, romance, and betrayal set against the backdrop of a defining moment in history.

Two sisters, Anne (Natalie Portman) and Mary (Scarlett Johansson) Boleyn, are driven by their ambitious father and uncle to advance the family's power and status by courting the affections of the king of England (Eric Bana). Leaving behind the simplicity of country life, the girls are thrust into the dangerous and thrilling world of court life–and what began as a bid to help their family develops into a ruthless rivalry between Anne and Mary for the love of the king.

Despite her initial reluctance, Mary soon finds herself deeply in love with the tender and attentive Henry. She becomes pregnant with Henry's child, and all is well, until her difficult pregnancy confines her to bed rest and the king's romantic interest in her wanes. When Sir Thomas summons Anne to return to court to entertain the king, it is the moment Anne has been waiting for. Just as Mary and George find their positions at court starting to slip, Anne, still bitter, plots to seduce the king and to exact revenge for what she sees as her sister's unforgivable betrayal.

First, Anne taunts her sister over the long-held grudge and persuades Henry to cast Mary and the newborn child out of court and back to her destitute husband in the country. With Mary out of sight, Anne begins to play out her clever scheme to become not only the king's mistress, but also his queen. She withholds sex from Henry, demanding that the king annul his twenty-year marriage to Katherine, send her away, and marry Anne. Henry demurs, because divorces are not allowed within the church, such a move would require a split with the Pope and likely spur an invasion by forces loyal to Rome.

When news of Anne's brief secret marriage surfaces, that one loose thread threatens to unravel the entire plan. The calculating Anne calls upon the only person she knows she can count on, summoning Mary back to court. Mary, seeking peace with her sister, tells Henry that he can trust Anne, and the king, convinced by the other Boleyn girl, marries Anne, who is now pregnant with his child. Anne has won she is crowned Queen of England.

But Anne's victory comes at a high price. Henry's controversial marriage to Anne proves more than simply a scandal in court; the repercussions of Henry's split with Rome push England to the brink of war. The king is left feeling disgusted with himself and his new bride, and with the eyes of the world on his court, Henry knows he can avoid humiliation only if Anne produces a son.

When Anne's first pregnancy results in a girl and she covers up the miscarriage of a second pregnancy, the king's patience with the Boleyn family reaches an end. Anne, Mary, and George, at the mercy of a vengeful king and a pitiless court, are stunned when their father and uncle sacrifice the children in an attempt to save themselves. In the end, with the executioner's sword waiting for Anne, there is no one but Mary willing to speak for her, and this time, even Mary's words cannot save her sister. Nevertheless, it is the unending bond between sisters that becomes Anne's final solace.

In her bestselling novel The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory spins a new take on a very old story: the ill-fated romance between King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. With a twin focus on Henry's relationship with Anne as well as his illicit affair with Anne's sister, Mary, Gregory's novel portrays the court of the Tudors as a home for sex, intrigue, and power games.

“I think before I wrote the novel, hardly anyone knew about Mary Boleyn,” Gregory says. “She was a character hidden from history, maybe because historians weren't interested in her, because she made no difference to the historical record. But I saw her story as a contrast between sisters, and that contrast was fertile ground. It becomes a parable for the way women make use of their opportunities.”

For director Justin Chadwick, the central relationship in “The Other Boleyn Girl” is not necessarily the famous one between Henry and Anne but the one between Anne and her sister, Mary, who vied with her for the king's attention. “Anne and Mary do some terrible things to each other, there's rivalry and jealousy between them, but ultimately, they're sisters,” he says. “You have a relationship with your sister that's different from any other person. You have conversations behind closed doors, talking to her in a completely different way. You can be completely open and honest with her. Like Mary says, it's like being two halves of the same person.”

Horrible to Each Other

Of course, sisters can be horrible to each other as well. “This is like a mafia story in the court of the Tudors,” says Chadwick. “It's got sex, rivalry, jealousy, ambition, scandal–with sisters at the heart of the story.”

Chadwick found his Boleyn sisters in two award-winning actresses, Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson. “They brought something to the roles, some sibling intimacy, some closeness, that meant we could take scenes further than the written page,” he notes. “During the course of the film, the sisters relationship changes, but they remain tied together as sisters. Natalie and Scarlett portray that beautifully.”

Family Story

Portman takes on the role of Anne Boleyn, who would replace her sister as the king's mistress, becoming his queen. “It's easy to see the story for its place in history, but at its heart it is a family story, a story between sisters,” says Portman.

Peter Morgan, who was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for The Queen, was eager to adapt Philippa Gregory's novel for the screen. “Though I'd already tackled Henry (for a TV drama starring Ray Winstone), I became hooked when I realized that this was a story from a completely different perspective,” he says. “It's written with such energy and gusto and the two sisters are such fantastic polar opposites. ”

Portman's Anne as Diva

Anne is a proper 16th Century diva–strong minded, stubborn, and manipulative– who accomplishes one of the great historical seductions, and manages to withhold her favors from the most powerful man in her world till she gets what she wants. She is the family favorite, in pole position, and needs the limelight. Mary is much more complicated; she has a higher emotional intelligence, an inner spirituality and is quite feisty and unbending in her own way.

Who's the Other Boleyn Sister

“Whichever sister becomes the more successful in their rivalry for the king's affections, the other one becomes the 'other Boleyn,' Portman says. “Anne totally buys into the whole competition, while Mary chooses a way to be happy without life in the court, and she ultimately wins by allowing Anne to have the victory that destroys her. It's a family story, with love and intrigue, about children who are corrupted by a world, which pushes them to compete rather than support each other. Mary, the survivor, is the one who rejects that world.”

Joining Portman and Johansson are Eric Bana as King Henry VIII, Kristin Scott Thomas as Lady Elizabeth, rising star Jim Sturgess as George Boleyn, Mark Rylance as Sir Thomas Boleyn, and David Morrissey as the Duke of Norfolk.

Portman's Self-Respect

Oscar- nominee Natalie Portman (“Closer”) says she first approached the role of Anne Boleyn with research. Relying not only on the character as written in the novel but also on historical sources, she found that Anne was a woman both of her time and ahead of it. “Anne had a sense of self-respect that was uncommon for a woman of her time. She thought she deserved a status she was not born with, and this ultimately led to her demise,” she says. “Marriage then was not about love; it was about uniting families to increase their power. Anne accepts this, but the unexpected thing is that Henry is charming, handsome and educated. She finds him an intellectual companion, and her way of attracting his attention is to challenge him.”

Portman as Only Child

As an only child, Natalie relied on her co-star for insight into sibling relationships. Scarlett is one of four children: “I felt like I had a co-conspiratorshe's a wonderful actor and a very playful person. Peter Morgan agreed that in every scene there were twenty things going on between the girls–loving, fighting, feeling guilty, rivalry, but above all closeness.”

For Costume Designer Sandy Powell, who has been nominated for a total of seven Oscars Awards, winning two for her work on Shakespeare in Love and The Aviator, the chance to work on The Other Boleyn Girl represented a great challenge: Powell and her team were responsible for designing and making hundreds of original costumes true to the Tudor era.

Like her colleague, production designer John-Paul Kelly, Powell turned to the paintings of Hans Holbein for inspiration for the costumes of Henry and the Boleyns. “He was the only artist of the time painting the Court of King Henry, and in such detail. The accepted image of Henry today is from Holbeins painting that hangs in the National Gallery, with the king standing hands on hips, his legs astride. Of course, in our film, we are depicting Henry at a younger age, so we have our own Henry.”

According to Powell, capturing the authentic look of the period and while maintaining high levels of creativity and originality is a balancing act for any designer working in a specific period. “You always have to use artistic license; you can never be strictly authentic, and besides, no one knows what authentic is, anyway,” she says. “We don't have complete information about the clothes, and we don't have the same fabrics. I do my research and then do my own version. I do what is right for the character, or the actor, or the scene, or the film as a whole. We have a story to tell.”

Differentiating Portman from Johansson

One of the keys to the film is differentiating between Mary and Anne Boleyn. Powell explains, “There is not a great deal of variety in the shape or silhouette of a Tudor dress, and the girls shared the same life and moved mainly in the same circles, at home or at Court, so I used a difference in tone and shade to separate them. Mary's character is slightly softer and more romantic than Anne, who is seen as stronger and more forceful. So, without being as obvious as one girl in red and one in blue, I've dressed them in different hues.”

Powell also used the costumes to subtly reflect the politics of the time. “For example, with the girls' father, Sir Thomas Boleyn, I've made each outfit a little bit grander than the last one, and finally a little bit vulgar towards the end. His power at Court is increasing, and with it, his wealth. Like a nouveau riche person today, he's got money and he wants to show it.”

Portman's Favorite Dress

The designer does have one favorite costume: “Natalie Portman wears the Lily Dress while riding a horse,” she says. “It's bright green, with embroidered lilies up the front.”

“Costumes are always very helpful,” says Johansson, noting that it's especially true in a period piece. “The way you hold yourself, how grand you feel when you wear it. For Mary, her character changes as her costumes change. In the country, she has simple cotton dresses that are easier to work with. Later in the film, she becomes very motherly–a child on her hip–and in the huge court dresses, it's impossible. You feel the change of character.”