Other Boleyn Girl, The


Berlin Film Fest 2008 (World Premiere)–British TV helmer Justin Chadwick makes a disappointing feature debut in “The Other Boleyn Girl,” a hybrid of a trashy period melodrama and a stately Masterpiece Theater episode, resulting in a kitschy film that can't decide how much to exploit its juicy text about King Henry VIII and the various women in his life.

Though cast by the likable Eric Bana as the sensual King, Natalie Portman as the ambitious Anne Boleyn, and Scarlett Johansson as her sister Mary (the other, more obscure Boleyn girl), in scope, approach, and execution, this film will sit very well on the small screen, just like HBO's “Elizabeth I” and “The Tudors.” Indeed, due to its plot's twists and turns, this costume meller might have benefited from a longer treatment, a mini-series, rather than a saga that rushes from one preposterous event and climax to another.

Based on the best-selling novel by Philippa Gregory, “The Other Boleyn Girl” is meant to be an engaging tale of sexual intrigues, erotic romances, and family betrayals, set against the backdrop of a defining moment in history, when King Henry VIII severed his ties with the Catholic Church in Rome.

King Henry VIII has been one of Hollywood's (and UK's) most popular screen heroes, beginning with Charles Laughton, who won the 1933 Actor Oscar for “The Private Life of King Henry VIII,” and continuing with Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, and other noted actors who have played the role over the years.

While not overtly feminist, this picture, scripted by Oscar-nominee Peter Morgan (“The Queen”), offers a new take on the King and the two sisters who become intriguingly involved and embroiled with his royalty.

To their father, Sir Thomas Boleyn, Anne and her younger sister Mary are simply commodities whose personal lives must be carefully managed so as to yield maximum financial and social benefit for the family. Despite protest of his more reasonable and emotional wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), convinced that Anne has the potential to attract a suitor of superior standing, Sir Thomas turns down a marriage proposal from a merchant family and offers them Mary instead.

Indeed, both Anne (Portman) and Mary (Johansson) Boleyn are driven by their ambitious father and uncle to advance the family's power and status by courting the affections of England's King (Bana). Leaving behind the simplicity of country life, the girls are thrust into the dangerous and thrilling world of court life. What begins as a bid to help their family's fortunes develops and then escalates into a ruthless rivalry between Anne and Mary for Henry's loveand bed.

Initially, it's Mary who wins King Henry's favor by becoming his mistress and bearing him an illegitimate child. However, disregarding family loyalty and royal mores, Anne, who is depicted as the smarter and more conniving of the duo, edges aside her sister and Henry's wife, Queen Katherine of Aragon, in her relentless pursuit of the king, putting to practice her motto that, “Love without position and power has no value.”

Much of the vivid detail of Philippa Gregory's best-selling novel “The Other Boleyn Girl” is gone, or arbitrarily compressed-for dramatic purposes and/or brevity of running time. For example, at least three times in the course of one reel, Mary is sent out of the court and then summoned back for various reasons: as punishment, as crucial witness to Anne's conduct, and also as a messenger of good will, speaking on behalf of her sister to the King.

Unfortunately, as scripted, directed, and acted, the two sisters come across as one-dimensional types-one good, honorable, and innocent, the other ruthless, conniving, and evil.

Despite Mary's genuine feelings for Henry, sister Anne has her sights set on the ultimate prize, though she won't sleep with Henry until the situation is cleared. Anne will not stop until she is Queen of England, to which end she is willing to use and abuse anyone around her. The King shows patience and understanding–up to a point, at which he can no longer suppress his desire and in a burst of anger and passion, he invades her room and rapes her.

Later on, Anne disappointingly gives birth to a daughter (Elizabeth), and then has a stillborn. She tries to seduce her brother to conceive a baby with her, but the poor fella shatters at the idea. Nonetheless, the news gets around, and Anne is tried for treason, adultery, and incest.

Meanwhile, as the Boleyn girls battle for the love of a king–one driven by ambition, the other by affection–England is literally falling apart. To judge from this film, politics and foreign relations are secondary to personal lust and greed.

The decline of the empire is followed by a series of executions that are so poorly staged and acted that they are borderline risible, causing unintentional laughter in the screening I attended.

The movie's forced reconciliatory ending is also problematic and hard to accept. We are led to believe that, despite the fatefully dramatic and tragic consequences, the Boleyn girls ultimately find strength and loyalty in each other–and remain forever connected by their bond as sisters. Suddenly, blood ties resurface and count the most.

Director Chadwick and scripter Moragn place the siblings rivalry at a pivotal historical moment, showing the consequences, risks, and rewards of the Boleyn sisters' tangled relationships with the King.

However, Morgan gives the story a schematic arch, beginning the film with a yarn of three innocent children (Anne, Mary, and George Boleyn), before charting their individual and joint journeys from the country field to the throne to the scaffold. As the saga unfolds, we see how all of their lives go horribly wrong, due to ambition, greed, or simple miscalculation.

The otherwise gifted Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson look right and enjoy on screen chemistry, but both struggle hard to give credibility to their roles, including admirable but inconsistent (and distracting) effort to essay a British accent.

This is the second misguided historical project for Natalie Portman after the disastrous response to Milos Forman's “Goya's Ghosts” last year. And while it's good to see Johanssson, after several films with Woody Allen (some good, some bad), I wish she were given a richer role to play; in most scenes, Johansson wears the same anguished and painful expression.

As a movie, “The Other Boleyn Girl” operates on the assumption that the sleazy and nasty intrigues of royalty, peeking at its operations behind closed doors (just as Anthony Harvey did in the 1968 royal melodrama, “The Lion in Winter”), should appeal to modern audiences as a reflection on obsession with celebrity and as a cautious morality tale. Nonetheless, the overall impression is of cheap sensationalistic treatment that trivializes the subject matter and its dramatic personas.

End Note

Gregory's 2002 novel was made into a UK TV film in 2003.


Anne Boleyn – Natalie Portman
Mary Boleyn – Scarlett Johansson
Henry VIII – Eric Bana
Duke of Norfolk – David Morrissey
Lady Elizabeth – Kristin Scott Thomas
Sir Thomas Boleyn – Mark Rylance
George Boleyn – Jim Sturgess
William Stafford – Eddie Redmayne
William Carey – Benedict Cumberbatch
Jane Parker – Juno Temple
Catherine of Aragon – Ana Torrent
Henry Percy – Oliver Coleman


A Sony Pictures Entertainment (in U.S.); Focus Features (International) release of a Universal Pictures Intl., Columbia Pictures (U.S.) presentation, in association with BBC Films and Relativity Media, of a Ruby Films (U.K.)/Scott Rudin (U.S.) production.
Produced by Alison Owen.
Executive producers: Scott Rudin, David M. Thompson.
Co-producer: Mark Cooper.
Directed by Justin Chadwick.
Screenplay, Peter Morgan, based on the novel by Philippa Gregory.
Camera: Kieran McGuigan.
Editors: Carol Littleton, Paul Knight.
Music: Paul Cantelon.
Production designer: John-Paul Kelly.
Supervising art director: David Allday.
Costume designer: Sandy Powell.
Sound: John Midgley; sound designer, Julian Slater.
Special Effects supervisor: Stuart Brisdon.

Running time: 114 Minutes.