The Other Boleyn Girl

Tragedy, Comedy, Tragicomedy, Historico-Tragico-Comedy

Sometimes you have to love a good frock opera, especially when it involves the kind of intrigue to do with English Royalty. Sex and Religion have a way of making itself felt in anything to do with Henry VIII, and in Anne Boleyn we have perhaps the most intriguing of Henry VIII’s Queens. In short, she reeks of scandal and she perished amidst scandalous accusations. All of which should make good fodder for any drama to unfold.

So what do we have in this Hollywood adaptation? It seems we’re not really interested in sticking to facts, and more interested in the titillation of Henry VIII having many a shagathon with multiple women in a bid to sire a son.

I missed this film at the cinemas in early 2009 because even with its strong selling points it wasn’t really a match for whatever else was on offer at the time. Now that it’s on DVD and selling for peanuts I thought “hey why not?”

What’s Good About It

The attitude of the Boleyn family portrayed in this film is alienatingly naked in its aggressive pursuit of advancement. They make your average social climber look like kindergarten bullies. Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk portrayed in this film is a scarily Macchiavellian man and that alone makes it riveting to watch.

In turn, the Boleyn girls as portrayed in this film are every bit up for some royal action in a bid to produce the future heir to the throne. It is decidedly un-modern and the attitude carried by the characters in this film are beautifully distant from our own present day mores. It’s positively exhilarating to watch naked, unfettered ambition. It plugs you right into the pulse of England as it reforms its way away from the Catholic Church.

The production design is great. The directing is okay, the cinematography is good. I don’t know how large the budget for this film was, but it has a lovely look to it. The locations looked fantastic.

Also, the actress who plays Catherine of Aragon – Ana Torrent – is excellent. More on that later.

What’s Bad About It

It’s a star-driven product. I don’t really know how to take Eric Bana’s King Henry VIII seriously. It’s not an issue of his acting so much as recognition, and what we recognise is that he can’t quite shake his Melbourne Aussie diction.  It’s distracting and on par with Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood when it comes to unbelievability. I mean, for a start, Henry VIII was a big boofy ranga. Eric Bana looks more like Ivan the Terrible than Henry VIII.

Similarly with Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn kept reminding me of her turn as Queen Amidala in the lesser-and-latter Star Wars trilogy. Yet, in many ways Natalie Portman manages to present a certain mood of a person who is gunning for power, she might not be the worst casting for Anne Boleyn. It’s just too hard to get past the baggage she carries in to this film.

Scarlett Johansson completes the triangle of stars that probably got the project up and running, and oddly enough she is the most believable of the three. I don’t think she looks like a period picture kind of actress, but she put in the most credible performance of the three. Then again her part may not have been the most difficult.

You feel sorry for the film for the casting that they had to make to get it made. Together with the casting disaster that was Russell & Cate’s ‘Robin Hood’, this film points to a great malaise in film making this decade.

Oh, and one more thing… the sex scene between Henry and Mary in the first turning point with its out of focus drift off camera move is godawful.

What’s Interesting About It

I guess the usual thing to do would be to pick nits and historical inaccuracies, but being that this film is already based on a book that is loosely based on history, I won’t go in for that fun too much. There are some interesting things about this film.

First of all, it is a very strange film where you are not sure if what you are watching is a kind of dramatised history or whether it is heavily molded to suit the screen. The movie flops about as it changes tenor of its gravity and all the while you think, “That’s Anne Boleyn, she’s going to get the chop” so there really is no suspense to the film. It makes for a better than average viewing of the emotional process,  but it takes too many liberties with history to you wonder if the emotional journey presented is even worthwhile.

I mean, for a start, Mary is Anne’s older sister, not younger. When Henry VIII says he relates to Mary Boleyn because they’re both second-children, it’s completely bogus as rationale.

The Catherine of Aragon Angle

Catherine of Aragon is one of the sadder characters in history. She may have been a religious zealot of sorts and a rather strident strict (and dire) Catholic of the Iberian persuasion, she also has the misfortune of being the first cab off the rank in the scheme of Henry VIII’s six wives. Indeed, she is history’s official first recorded member of ‘The First Wives Club’. Even though she was born to rule and she was queen to Henry for a solid 27 years, she never quite fills the pages of history as a totally positive figure. There is a lingering feeling even today, when people pass judgment that her failure to produce a male heir, alongside with her producing Mary I -aka “Bloody Mary” – as her contribution to the lineage of English Royalty, are her personal faults.

Indeed Henry’s other 5 wives are crammed into the last 11 years of his reign, and not many depictions of Catherine of Aragon amongst the other 5 wives cover this point. In most of his adult life, Catherine was Henry VIII’s love of his life, and it is in the last decade of his life that he turns himself inside out with his kingdom to produce a male heir that results in the strange set of events.

As such, the crux of the drama rests on how Anne Boleyn convinces Henry VIII to abandon his long trusted Queen and in the process junk the ties to the Catholic Church. Catherine in this film is an unfortunate bit of collateral damage, but in reality she would have been far more active in trying to preserve hr claim to being Queen. It’s an odd decision then to downplay this part of the drama, because this is where the best materials lie.

The Bountiful Boleyns

You kind of have to know how subsequent history went to understand the ironies of this film to get your money’s worth of laughs. Anne Boleyn’s daughter of course is Elizabeth I who goes on to reign for 45 years as one of the great monarchs in English history AND she got played by Cate Blanchett, another Australian like Eric Bana; so in recent movie-land at least the House of Tudor is a bunch of Aussies and Eric can ask Cate, “Who’s your daddy?”

Yet putting such casting related jokes aside, had Henry not been so fixated on a male heir he might not have worked his way through the other 4 wives. He actually had 3 issues who would reign, out of his first three marriages – Mary I, Elizabeth I and Edward VI. He did alright, as they would say, but how was he to know?

Perhaps the lesser known angle to all this is what happened to the Mary Boleyn line. Mary Boleyn’s descendants are still around and through history they have counted amongst them Winston Churchill and the late Diana Princess of Wales. Princess Di of course gave us the two princes, one of whom William will presumably one day sit on the throne.

Rick Wakeman Wherefore Art Thou?

This is just an aside and doesn’t have much to do with the film as such.

The more one reads about King Henry VIII and his Six Wives, the more one comes face to face the morbid fear of death that must have plagued Henry VIII. These marriages, as amorously charged in the beginning they may have been, all seem to have weird confluences of courtiers’ ambitions and issues of state hanging over them. The whys and wherefores of Henry moving from one wife to another is like an early harbinger of modernity and the search for true undying love.

Surely he loves Catherine of Aragon who gives him one daughter, but the needs of the state weigh upon him so greatly that he engineers a break from the Roman Catholic Church to get to Anne Boleyn. He gets a daughter, not a son and so he engineers a witch-trial to get rid of her to get to Jane Seymour. Jane Seymour gives him a son, but dies, so he quickly mail-orders a bride from Saxony and gets buyers’ remorse when he sees Anne of Cleves. So he ends up with Catherine Howard by which time he’s old and obese and has a pustular infection in his thigh – what a turn on for a teenage girl –  who essentially refuses to shag him. So he gets rid of her and sends her to the chopping block, and replaces her with Catherine Parr by which time he’s no longer really able to do it.

No wonder people keep going back to this well for stories to tell. The film made me want to hunt up for my copy of Rick Wakeman’s ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’. Yet, as interesting as the parade of these women are, I don’t think there has been a great cinematic investigation into the emotional crisis that was in Henry’s soul in the last 11 years of his reign.

The frantic changes of wives in the last ten years of Henry’s reign aren’t just scandalous by conventional moral standards, they’re existential and desperate. The man is clearly trying to affix something that cannot be affixed, like nailing the proverbial jello to a ceiling. He is searching for the perfect Queen who can at once give him what Catherine of Aragon gave him in her best years, plus give him that male heir, all the while his animal potency as a male is dying. Talk about raging against the dying light.

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