An all-star cast weaves a sixteenth-century soap opera in this colorful attempt to breathe new life into a familiar story.
Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Justin Chadwick, The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) was based on a novel of the same name by Philippa Gregory. Billed as a scandalous portrayal of King Henry VIII’s courtship and eventual marriage to Anne Boleyn, this film seems quaint by today’s standards. Its release was timed to capitalize on Showtime’s The Tudors (2007-2010), but lacked that show’s outstanding performances.
The film opens in Tudor England during the reign of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana). Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey) and his brother-in-law Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) learn the King is unhappy with his wife, Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent), who has not yet produced a male heir. They sense an opportunity to advance their social standing by installing one of Boleyn’s daughters as the King’s mistress. His daughter Mary (Scarlett Johansson) has already wed William Carey (Benedict Cumberbatch), so they turn to Anne (Natalie Portman).
Over the objections of his wife, Elizabeth Boleyn (Kristin Scott Thomas), Thomas invites the King to his estate to introduce him to Anne. Things get complicated when the King is injured in a hunting accident and he falls in love with Mary when she tends to his injury. Mary becomes the King’s mistress, and Anne is exiled to France for trying to marry an earl without the King’s knowledge.
Anne returns from France a transformed woman, and despite Mary giving birth to a baby boy, she sets her sights on winning the King’s affection and becoming Queen. It’s an all-too-familiar story, which ends in an all-too-familiar way. Unfortunately, the filmmakers chose to continue the story past its logical conclusion, when Anne wins the rivalry with Mary for the King’s affection.
King Henry VIII ruled England from 1509 to 1547. He is known for severing the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church, and for having six wives, two of whom he had executed. Mary Boleyn was the King’s mistress for a time, and is rumored to have bore two of his illegitimate children. She was married twice, the second time to a common soldier, and died estranged from her family.
Anne Boleyn became Queen of England in 1533, however, her failure to produce a male heir led to her execution for treason and other trumped-up charges three years later. Henry and Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, became one of England’s most renowned queens, who reigned for over 44 years.
The Other Boleyn Girl follows the general outline of history but changes many details. King Henry VIII met both Mary and Anne Boleyn at court, not at their father’s estate. Henry had been present at Mary’s wedding. Mary was not an innocent maiden when they met, having already had an affair with the King of France, among others in the French court. In contrast, Anne was well-educated, intelligent, gracious, and politically astute, a far cry from the brash and boorish depiction in this film. The Tudors also unfairly portrayed Anne this way.
Compared with The Tudors, the acting in The Other Boleyn Girl leaves much to be desired. Natalie Dormer played a much more convincing seductress than Natalie Portman. She oozed sexuality, confidence, and energy. Jonathan Rhys Meyers‘ portrayal of King Henry VIII makes Eric Bana’s seem flaccid by comparison. Of course, The Tudors had more time to develop their relationship and keep building the suspense. That’s why The Other Boleyn Girl should have ended when Anne became queen and devoted more time to the rivalry with her sister.
The Other Boleyn Girl is the kind of romantic costume drama that critics generally dislike but that appeals to a certain audience (the word “soap opera” comes to mind). It currently holds a 42% positive rating from critics and 62% audience favorability on RottenTomatoes. The film was commercially lukewarm as well, grossing $26.8 million on a $35 million budget. The filmmakers should have focused on what unique elements they brought to the story, rather than waste screen time rehashing what audiences have seen before.