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Church and State

King Henry VIII's English Reformation Changed History--Not That You'd Know It From This Movie

SIBLING RIVALRY: Natalie Portman (Left) Can Keep Her Mouth Closed, So She Gets to Be Queen Instead of Scarlett Johansson.

By Cole Haddon | Posted 2/27/2008

In The Other Boleyn Girl, British television director Justin Chadwick, with the help of Philippa Gregory's not remotely accurate historical novel, re-imagines the love affairs between King Henry VIII (Eric Bana) and sisters Mary (Scarlett Johansson) and Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman) as a Godfather-esque story of court intrigues, power-mongering, and outright whoring. Showtime television series The Tudors pretty much did the same thing last year--except that Henry, whose political actions have real consequences for England and Europe, rightly remains the central figure in the story line. In Boleyn, the sisters, particularly Anne, who eventually became Henry's queen, are never given their historical due.

Because of Anne's marriage to Henry following his divorce from his wife, Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent), England broke ties with the Roman Catholic Church, thereby giving birth to the Church of England and forever changing the course of so much of world history. The profundity of this consequence, subsequent to the manipulations of their father, Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance), to gain political rank by sending them into the king's bedchambers, is practically offered up as an afterthought. In fact, the earth-shattering break from the Catholic Church, necessary for Henry to finally get under Anne's dress, takes place entirely off-screen with no ramifications except for a little booing outside Anne's windows. The Other Boleyn Girl offers the illusion of being about a moment in history that matters, but that the filmmakers would rather just reduce the story to how Anne, a pretty girl with lofty ambitions, became the queen of England for three years not because she was at all powerful like her daughter, Elizabeth I, but because she knew being a cock-tease was the real way to get a man to do what she wanted.

Boleyn's time line feels rushed and difficult to keep track of, probably because of Chadwick's TV roots; he helmed many episodes of the whirringly edited Bleak House. He wants to give the movie a sense of urgency to parallel Henry's paranoid quest for a male heir without really paying attention to how much time actually passed, but the result is disorienting and even choppy. Mary is married early on to an adequate suitor she has been betrothed to since she was a little girl, while the older sister, Anne--who, in reality, was the younger sister--has been reserved by her father for a match that will elevate the family's standing. That opportunity comes when Katherine gives birth to yet another stillborn, and Anne and Mary's uncle, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey), comes prowling for a new mistress for his friend, the king.

At first, Anne, unwed and anxious to marry into a powerful position, looks like the ideal choice, but she's too headstrong for Henry. The tender Mary, however, catches his eye. A deal is cut with Mary's social-climbing husband and, against her will, she, along with Anne, are brought to court. Mary soon gives birth to an illegitimate son, but by then Anne--whose wild ways have been tempered by a brief exile in Paris--has caught Henry's eye. With no regard for her sister's surprising love for Henry, Anne proceeds to tempt Henry with her feminine wiles, driving him insane with lust until he accedes to her demands to divorce Katherine and break with the Catholic Church in order to marry her.

After giving birth to Elizabeth--an act that, like aforementioned church break, is treated with no significance despite the impact Elizabeth made on English history--Henry grows distant and, anxious for an excuse to move on to another wife who might give him the male heir he wants, has her convicted of treason and incest and beheaded. Note the crime of incest; Anne actually tries to bed her brother, George (Jim Sturgess), after she suffers a miscarriage, the only way to get pregnant again since the king won't go to bed again with a woman he believes to be pregnant. There are so few characters of admirable quality in Boleyn's script, by Peter Morgan (The Queen), that you mostly just want to squirm with disgust. There is no tragedy in watching someone like Anne, whom you loathe, fall from her already low position. Worse, Portman imbues her brief monarch with none of the grace, wisdom, or intelligence that might help presage what is to come in Elizabeth--even though Elizabeth's greatness is given in a postscript as Anne's ultimate triumph.

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