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THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL – Tudor history on the big screen

Starring: Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson and Eric Bana
Director: Justin Chadwick
Rated: M

MOST audiences know the ending for Anne Boleyn, so it is how it began and how it developed that are the important matters here.

Prolific writer, Peter Morgan (The Deal, The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, Longford, Frost/Nixon) has adapted a historical novel by Philippa Gregory – which leads to a strange disclaimer at the end of the film that this is a fiction and any resemblance …!

Already filmed for television in 2003 with Johdi May as Anne, Natascha McElhone as Mary and Jared Harris as Henry VIII, this is a lavish screen version catering for what one commentator called the audience appetite for Tudorbethan dramas.

Costumes, décor, locations should please those who want to see and visualise history.

The story is intriguing (in both senses). While the younger, married, Mary Boleyn (Scarlet Johansson), was designated by her ambitious and greedy family to be Henry VIII’s mistress after Anne (Natalie Portman), originally the choice fell out of favour, and bore the king a son, she is the other Boleyn girl.

However, early in the film Anne refers to herself in this way. However, she eventually outshines and outmanoeuvres Mary.

Anne is first chosen by the ruthless and blunt Duke of Norfolk (an alarmingly steely performance from David Morrissey), forcing his weaker brother-in-law, Thomas Boleyn (a credible Mark Rylance) to prostitute his daughter to the king to win favours and pay off debts.

Norfolk’s sister, Elizabeth (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a strong woman but tends to accept this status quo.

Henry VIII’s desire to have a male heir to consolidate his kingdom is well known and the core of this story.

Catherine of Aragon (an effectively controlled performance by Ana Torent, the fine child actress from the 1970s in The Spirit of the Beehive and Cria Cuervos) bears her daughter, Mary, but only stillborn males.

This screenplay makes Anne and her shrewd and ambitiously scheming and Henry’s unruly passion for her the motive forces for defying the pope and separating England from the Catholic Church (Peter Morgan’s explicit screenplay statement).

Wolsey and Cranmer do not figure here, but the plot makes a strong case for Anne’s power and influence.

With the birth of Elizabeth and a miscarriage, Anne knew that a king who had discarded his wife and her sister, Mary, would discard her too.

Eric Bana is a quieter Henry VIII than might have been expected.

Scarlett Johansson is credible and quite effective as Mary, portraying her as a more decent and heroic woman given the treatment by family and king.

But Natalie Portman is mightily impressive as Anne, charming, self-confident, wily and, given the momentum from the Duke of Norfolk’s plan, more than an accomplice, taking over and dominating until she marries and is crowned as queen. Then she reaps the consequences of her flirtatious whirlwind.

The other strength of the film is the dynamic between the two sisters – loving, a sense of betrayal, hostility and jealousy, dependence and reconciliation.

An interesting and entertaining contribution to screen Tudor history.

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