Historical fiction in film: The Other Boleyn Girl

The Other Boleyn GirlI did not see this film at the time of its theatrical release. I was content to watch it last week during a transatlantic flight. Granted, these were not ideal viewing conditions, but this kind of cramped setting has never prevented me from discovering, and appreciating great movies. Unfortunately, The Other Boleyn Girl did not enthrall me enough to make me forget the indignities of air travel. I hasten to say that the following is no reflexion on the novel, which I have not read.

The film introduces us to sisters Mary (Scarlett Johansson)and Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman). They could not be more different: Mary is sincere, warm, sweet, generous, disinterested. Anne is jealous, headstrong, conniving, ruthlessly ambitious. Don’t expect the wonderfully nuanced sister pairs from Jane Austen’s novels. We are not talking Jane-Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice or Elinor-Marianne in Sense and Sensibility.

Here Anne and Mary are mere pawns in the social advancement schemes of their father and uncle. At first Anne is given to understand that she is to raise the family’s fortunes by becoming the mistress of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana.) Henry is tired of his Queen, Catherine of Aragon, who is reaching menopause without having given him the male heir he so wanted.

This seems like a promising opportunity for Anne to work her magic, but it is not to be: she outrides Henry during a hunting party. Henry is lightly injured when he falls off his horse, but his pride is far more deeply wounded. So it is newlywed Mary who becomes the target of his attentions. Mary, who does not seem to think much of her husband, only puts up a half-hearted show of resistance. Soon she finds herself with child, and presents the King with a son. Everything should be rosy for the upwardly mobile Boleyn family if jealous Anne did not take advantage of her sister’s laying-in to seduce Henry. In a hearbeat he breaks with the Church, founds his very own religion and discards both his mistress and his wife. This is the mother of all midlife crises. Soon Anne becomes the new Queen. The rest is history. Well, more or less.

This is a pretty movie. The sets and costumes are pretty. Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman and Eric Bana are all pretty people (Bana, in particular, is much more handsome than the real Henry.) They are competent actors too, but their lines are so trite and pompous as to be almost comical. They creditably keep a straight face through the whole thing, but none of them should expect an Academy Award for this one.

Equally problematic is the lack of character development and consistency. We understand within minutes that Mary is a goody-two-shoes and Anne a witch. Yet Mary doesn’t seem to experience much emotional turmoil as she becomes Henry’s mistress. She is pliable, she conveniently falls in love with the man she is supposed to bed, and we are treated to numerous scenes of the happy couple in intimate settings. It follows that neither sister is very likable or compelling as a character.

What about Henry? He is supposed to be desperate for an heir, and just when Mary presents him with a son, he abruptly leaves her and does not pay any attention to their supposed offspring. Of course, we know that in reality Mary’s son was most likely not by Henry, but within this story, where we are told the reverse, this doesn’t make any sense.

Anne’s brief time as a Queen is presented in such a rush as to give the impression of being viewed in fast-forward. Before we realize what is happening, Anne is mating with her brother to produce a hurried replacement for Henry’s baby, lost to a miscarriage.

This is where we reach the issue of ethics in historical fiction. Reputable historians agree that the charges of incest and adultery brought by Henry against Anne were trumped-up, a cowardly, disingenuous, cruel pretext to discard her after he had lost interest in her. In my eyes, the one disgraced by those accusations has always been Henry, so eager to publicly proclaim himself a cuckhold.

And yet here we are told that the charges against Anne were true. She is not my favorite historical character, but I do admire the courage, dignity and even grace she showed at the time of her execution. Why defame her to such an extent? Why turn her into a sniveling, deluded coward, expecting a pardon up to the scaffold?

The final images of Mary snatching her niece, the future Queen Elizabeth, from her attendants and walking away with her into the sunset, are in keeping with the rest of the picture’s melodramatic abuse of history. The Other Boleyn Girl bears the same relationship to great cinema as airplane food to haute cuisine.

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23 Comments to “Historical fiction in film: The Other Boleyn Girl”

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  4. Catherine Delors says:

    Priscilla – I have yet to see “Anne of a thousand days” but was told that it was the best of the movie adaptations of Anne’s story. What a beautifully evocative title too.

  5. Priscilla says:

    I rarely put aside a book without finishing it, but this was so poorly written that I broke my usual pattern. The historical characters were written with modern-day reactions to mediaeval circumstances. Always off putting. I may rent the movie this winter. I’m sure it is visually lovely. I watched some of the television program, “The Tudors” with its mis-cased actors. I’m sure they could have found folks who more closely resembled portraits of the historic figures, rather than cast because of being the latest heart-throb.
    BTW I remember “Ann of a Thousand Days”. Geneviève Bujold was perfect and Richard had just right in attitude if not looks of Henry.

  6. Catherine Delors says:

    Susan – I didn’t find it to be the case in the film, though the characters lacked development and coherence. Certainly watching the movie didn’t inspire me to read the book.

  7. I suppose I’ll have to give in and rent the movie sometime, just for the sake of curiosity. I couldn’t get through the book–everyone in it was just too smarmy.

  8. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you for the link, Elisa! Philippa Gregory’s website must be fascinating and I will check it out.

    This reminds me of an article on the topic by Antonia Fraser, where she defended the historical accuracy of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (based on her own book) while attacking that of The Other Boleyn Girl. In my opinion, that was not justified, as both films are equally inaccurate. I have to dig up this article and will post a link to it.

    As for this film, it does look good (like Marie Antoinette, by the way) which makes it enjoyable at the visual level. And also if you are the author of the book…

  9. Elisa says:

    I’ve read the book (twice) and enjoyed it. No, I’ve yet to see the movie.
    Of interest to readers, you can visit Philippa Gregory’s website. There’s historical background information about the book which the movie is based, the Boleyn sisters, and other related articles.
    Philippa was a consultant for the movie, as she mentions in her interview at the end of her book “The Boleyn Inheritance” so she had her input.
    Also, on the homepage of her website, Philippa says she enjoyed the movie.

  10. Catherine Delors says:

    Well, Sheramy, apparently it was not spelled out in the film either, though I remember Anne disheveled and hysterical over the miscarriage, her brother panting and making horrible faces, and Mary acting as a lookout.

  11. Sheramy says:

    From what I remember of the book, it was pretty obvious that incest took place even though not spelled out exactly. In the book, the miscarried baby itself was the major clue (and that’s all I’m saying so as not to spoil)–that was the part I thought ridiculous. Don’t know if that bit is in the film.

  12. Catherine Delors says:

    Lauren – It did seem to me that the movie showed Anne and her brother engaging in sexual relations just after her miscarriage. But maybe I misunderstood it. The mere idea of a woman even attempting sexual relations immediately following the loss of her baby turned my stomach.
    Cinderella and Sibylle – Funny how readers of the book as well have a split interpretation of that issue.
    It seems that both book and movie leave things fuzzy enough for at least some readers/viewers (including me) to interpret the incest accusations as true.

  13. Sibylle says:

    Oh trust me, the novel does show the rumours as being true : all along Anne and her brother are very close and all of a sudden, there’s a description of Mary seeing them kissing and being so shocked she closes the door without saying a word and leaves them in the room : a few chapters later, Anne is pregnant and has a miscarriage, and George describes this as being “their punishment for what they have done” before Anne tries to convince him they did nothing wrong.
    I say don’t blame those who saw its potential for Hollywood, blame the original for spreading these rumours in the first place.

  14. Cinderella says:

    I was disappointed by the movie, although I enjoyed the book.

    The book’s big weakness, for me, was the same thing you mentioned about the movie — the illogical way Henry (like everyone else) ignores the children he has by Mary. No one in the book treats them as potential political pawns or even seems to remember that their father is the king. Otherwise I found the book credible and entertaining.

    “Anne of the Thousand Days” is a better movie. Richard Burton was the kind of larger-than-life actor who should play Henry VIII.

  15. Lauren says:

    I actually watched this film for the first time on DVD on the weekend.

    People claim that she had sex with her brother in this film, and they do attempt it but stop, realizing the folly and perverse nature of what they are doing. They did not portray real incest in this film.

  16. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Marg! I guess the analogy was inspired by this miserable flight.

  17. Catherine Delors says:

    Sheramy – I think the reverse is also true. Watching the movie doesn’t make you want to read the novel.

    Marg – Thank you for the compliment! The analogy was inspired by this miserable flight.

    Elena – I haven’t seen Anne of the Thousand Days, but will watch out for it.

  18. Yes, I always heard the charges were bogus, too. Well, maybe I will see the film, just so I can discuss it! The film which I really, really liked was “Anne of the Thousand Days.”

  19. Marg says:

    “The Other Boleyn Girl bears the same relationship to great cinema as airplane food to haute cuisine.”

    Classic line! I still haven’t seen this. I guess I will watch it eventually but I am not in any great hurry.

  20. Sheramy says:

    I skipped the movie because I did read the book last year, and although found some things about it enjoyable, was disappointed enough in the historical liberties not to think it a ‘good book’ per se. I don’t know if the silliest part of the novel is in the movie, but toward the end the book gets fairly absurd with the whole incest issue. I’m not sorry I missed the film.

  21. Catherine Delors says:

    Well, Elena, you probably know far more about Tudor history than I, but I had always heard that the charges against Anne were bogus. I don’t even think the novel goes so far as claiming they were true.

    As for seeing the movie, I wouldn’t discourage you from renting it, but expect roughly the same level of historical accuracy as in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. I read your review on it a while back, and we are on the same page on that one.

  22. “This is the mother of all midlife crises.” That has to be one of the truest statements ever made! People keep telling me I need to see this movie but the more I hear about it, the more my stomach turns. It is pure sensationalism to show Anne as incestuous. Even the Spanish ambassador knew that to be a totally outrageous lie.

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