Other Boleyn Girl, The (United Kingdom, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Historical dramas aren't as popular as they were during the years when they were routinely clogging Oscar nomination lists and taking home awards, so it's a source of curiosity every time one comes out to see what concessions have been made to increase the story's popularity with today's multiplex-going audiences. The Other Boleyn Girl, based on the novel by Philippa Gregory, comes from BBC Films, which has a long and respected reputation for this sort of motion picture. The director is Justin Chadwick, whose previous credits include helming the critically acclaimed Bleak House for the BBC. So what's the compromise? For this very English tale, none of the three leads is English. To maximize appeal, the cast is highlighted by Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, and Eric Bana. Fortunately, though none of the trio is British, they are capable actors, so the story does not suffer. The result is an entertainingly sudsy trip through early 16th century English history.

The Other Boleyn Girl is divided into two sections. The first part is a romantic melodrama about the sisterly rivalry between Anne (Portman) and Mary Boleyn (Johansson) for who will capture the affections of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana). The second part rushes through various events of historical importance, such as the creation of the Church of England, to emphasize Anne's rise to prominence as the Queen of England, followed by her fall. The early scenes, which have a more leisurely pace and are less concerned with plot development, are more enjoyable. The tragic arc of Mary's story is more affecting than that of the less sympathetic Anne. King Henry, while accorded a fair amount of screen time, is more of a plot element than a well developed individual. The story is presented from the points-of-view of Anne and Mary; the king is always an object and never the subject.

Historically, the film boasts a reasonable (although not flawless) accuracy. It helps that things from that time period are not all well known - this allows more artistic license to be taken, and since the figures portrayed herein have been dead for some 450 years, they're not going to complain. The primary purpose of The Other Boleyn Girl is to tell a story, not to provide a history lesson. Anyone searching for more than a cursory examination of why Henry broke with Rome won't find it here. The movie is about Henry, Anne, and Mary's domestic lives not their public ones (to the extent that those can be separated). Once the narrative has joined Anne and Henry in matrimony, it shifts into the fast lane and accelerates toward the unhappy conclusion. By then, the story has been told - it's just lacking an ending. The consequence of this approach is that some audience members may sense things are missing during the race to the climax. The pace is so fast during this section that it's almost unseemly.

It could be said that The Other Boleyn Girl forms the first part of an unofficial trilogy that is completed by Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age. The Other Boleyn Girl even ends with a nice handoff to Shakar Kapur's double-feature. However, whereas the Elizabeth films focus more on court intrigue and international conspiracies, The Other Boleyn Girl is more interested in the human side of things: love, hate, and betrayal. There are indications that a longer cut of The Other Boleyn Girl may have contained more politics, but time constraints resulted in those elements being reduced. The Duke of Norfolk remains as mysterious as he is malevolent and there's a sense that Jane Parker's part was intended to be larger. Still, while the tones of the three films may be different, the historical line is unbroken and the production values are uniformly impressive.

Eric Bana presents a version of Henry VIII who's a little different from what most viewers will be accustomed to. Normally, the king is portrayed as brutish and brutal. Bana humanizes him, keeping the swagger but also making him easily manipulated, especially by a comely face. Natalie Portman's Anne is less virtuous and innocent that she is often portrayed to be. In fact, she's pretty much a bitch and could be considered the film's villainess except that there are times when the script expects the audience to sympathize with her. Scarlet Johansson recalls her work from The Girl with the Pearl Earring in her portrayal of the good-hearted Mary, whose crime is that she not only becomes the king's mistress but falls in love with him. Bana and Johansson have little trouble adopting English accents, but Portman is plagued by the same unevenness that marred her dialogue in V for Vendetta. She may have many talents but affecting a British accent isn't among them.

With its fast pace, expensive looking production values, and deeper focus on the people inside the costumes than on the costumes themselves, this movie is designed more for a modern audience than for those who watched a first-run of the BBC's 1970 TV mini-series, The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Anyone with a preference for politics looking for a more in-depth examination of Henry's repudiation of the Pope will find it in A Man for All Seasons (with Robert Shaw as Henry VIII and Vanessa Redgrave as Anne Boleyn). But those interested in the romance and tragedy associated with loving an inconstant king will find that and more in The Other Boleyn Girl.

Other Boleyn Girl, The (United Kingdom, 2008)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2008-02-29
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1