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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