The Other Boleyn Girl is one of those movies that a professor with an agenda would love, because it filters history through a single viewpoint, leaving all other reasons and motives conveniently on the cutting room floor. This is a girl power version of historical events, something a rabid Jane Austen fan would write.
Not that the real story doesn’t lend itself to this idea. By all accounts Anne Boleyn was quite the little firecracker in her day, and the rules of the day forced women with any ambition to resort to backhanded manipulation to get what they wanted. The problem with this movie is only that it erases any other factors that were in play. In the 16th century, everyone resorted to backhanded manipulation. Anne Boleyn was not the only snake in the garden, not by a long shot.
The Other Boleyn Girl, directed by Justin Chadwick and with a screenplay by Peter Morgan based on Philippa Gregory's book of the same name, focuses on sisters Anne and Mary Boleyn, products of a ruthlessly ambitious family. When it is learned that the king is losing interest in his queen now that she is older and has yet to produce a male heir, the family hatches a plan to make Anne his mistress. They invite the king and parade Anne in his face, but it is her younger married sister Mary that catches his eye.
What follows is a series of sisterly backstabbings. Mary, at first hesitant and bewildered by her role, soon comes to relish her status and falls for the king. Anne however, never forgives Mary or Henry for the slight, and is determined to get her revenge. When Mary becomes pregnant with the king’s child and is forcibly bedridden, she makes her move, and from then on King Henry and the rest of England don’t stand a chance against her feminine wiles.
Really? Although it is true that Henry VIII did end up breaking with the Catholic Church and forming the separate Church of England in large part to secure a marriage with Anne Boleyn, it is difficult to believe that was his only reason. The film leads the viewer to believe he did it all not to lessen the Pope’s influence on his kingdom or for pure ambition and power… no, he did it all to get in a little girl's pantaloons.
Eric Bana as the king does nothing to make the man matter. Henry VIII was recently the subject of Showtime’s The Tudors, and anyone who watched that has to shake their head at this version of the man. There, Jonathan Rhys Meyers played him as an intelligent, sexy, and vital creature, as manipulative and conniving as the wild girl he chose to be his wife. Here, Henry is reduced to one of those empty-eyed buffoons that come out on A&E's Millionare Matchmaker. Although this is probably due to the narrowness of the script, it is the job of an actor to overcome these barriers and Bana failed miserably to move beyond what is essentially a caricature.
Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman fare much better. Johansson's Mary is a lush, angelic creature, and as always, she gives her character an effortless sensuality. Mary is the “good” sister, but she manages to give the girl an edge nonetheless. It is a joy to see her slowly come alive and embrace her role as a mistress, a girl who grins mischieviously when her powerful lover offers to send her irrelevant husband far away. The role of Mary is limited too, but Johansson is a better actor than Bana and can make what could have been a boring good girl role into an interesting and ultimately tragic one.
Natalie Portman as Anne is a bit more troubling. Portman is a wonderful actress, and she infuses the role with her natural intelligence. The casting of these two women makes sense too, because although Portman is undeniably beautiful, it is not a stretch to believe she would be overlooked when compared to Johansson, at least at first glance. Portman has the type of face that grows more and more captivating the more you look at her. When compared, hers is the more interesting beauty. The problem here is that for all her charms, there is no real chemistry between herself and Henry. There is the suggestion in this film that Anne got her way due to her “bewitching” of the king, but the film fails to make this believable. For all her clever lines, Anne comes across as more of a little brat than a seductive woman. Portman, for all her abilities, looks tiny and young, a little girl playing at the coquette. It is ludicrous to believe a king would jeopardize his kingdom for such a child.