Not unlike Anne Boleyn herself, the movie version of Philippa Gregory's bestselling novel The Other Boleyn Girl is both greatly ambitious and flawed. It's lovely to look at, yet unsatisfying as a film. In some ways, it seems like a video that will soon be used in history classes as one of the many ways we can view Anne Boleyn's life and death. It's not the grand cinematic experience I'd hoped for as I read the novel for this month's book club.
In this version of Gregory's work, Anne is forced by her family — against her will, at first — to seduce England's King Henry VIII. Henry's queen, Katherine of Aragon, has not been able to produce a male heir to the throne, so Anne's uncle, the Duke of Norfolk — played as the one true villain of the story by David Morrissey — decides Anne should have a boy by Henry, thus allowing the whole family to advance. Yet when Henry suffers a hunting accident and Anne is blamed for it, the Duke makes Anne's sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson) become Henry's mistress. She's, you know, the other Boleyn girl. There's so much else to talk about with this film, so read more.
When Mary becomes pregnant by Henry, Anne is once more pushed in front of Henry to keep him interested in the Boleyn family. Anne enchants the king who quickly forgets all about Mary and becomes desperate to have Anne — no matter what it takes. Having gained the king's worship, Anne withholds herself physically from the king until he promises to divorce Queen Katherine and make Anne his wife. Yet everything goes horribly wrong when Anne does become queen — and then cannot produce a male heir. King Henry grows increasingly impatient and Anne takes desperate measures to try and remain in his good graces. These measures ultimately lead to her demise.
Having recently finished the book, I was distracted by the ways in which the film deviates from Gregory's work. Many of the changes are understandable, seeing as Gregory's novel is quite long and encompasses so many events that couldn't possibly fit into a two-hour film. Yet despite the edits and the rearrangements, the movie still feels cluttered, overwrought and sometimes disjointed. Mary's first husband William Carey, for example, is in the first quarter of the movie but when Mary takes up with the king, he sends William Carey away and we never hear from or see him again. There's zero explanation for whatever happened to this person that Mary is married to, and then randomly William Stafford approaches her with the offer of a country farm. I assume this is a casualty of editing, but it's infuriating to be thought so little of as an audience, like maybe we wouldn't notice.
And then, after all the things left out of the movie, there's the baffling addition of Henry viciously raping Anne when she refuses to marry him until he divorces Katherine. This is not a part of Gregory's novel and the only reason I can think of to include it is for dramatic effect. In this way, it feels like a cheap — and disgusting — move. Personally, I resent being subjected to an awful rape scene because someone figured it would be a great way to keep our attention.
The lush costumes are the most delightful part of the film, as the story is so rushed it's hard to care about anyone or anything — including this "sisterly bond" they consistently try so hard to make seem like the tightest relationship ever. The two women are far closer in the film than they are in the book, probably because it's supposed to make the wedge driven between them that much more devastating. And yet . . . it's hard to care much about either sister. It's not a fault of the acting — I was pretty impressed by both Johansson and Portman, for different reasons — but perhaps of the story's hectic tempo.
Bottom line: Though it has a lovely look to it, I expected more from this movie and was disappointed.
Photos courtesy of Sony