Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
It is a well-established fact that moviegoers, by and large, associate period films with long, drawn out plots that cause boredom almost immediately after the opening credits. Sometimes this is even the case, but if every movie were as intense and as entertaining as The Other Boleyn Girl, audiences and critics alike would never have anything to complain about. There is not one wasted word or scene, and when it’s over you’ll wish there was still more to come. Let me assure all those with period piece phobia that this one is anything but slow.
Obviously (at least for those with a basic understanding of English history), Anne Boleyn was once the Queen of England, married to King Henry VIII. How she became his wife is part of the story here, as is her execution by a sword to the back of the neck. Anne (Natalie Portman) was the older sister of Mary Boleyn (Scarlett Johansson). Their uncle, The Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey) comes to their father, Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) with a dilemma: Queen Katherine (Ana Torrent), who has given King Henry (Eric Bana) only girls, can’t have children anymore and that means that there is an opening for a beguiling young woman to seduce King Henry and have his son for him. It doesn’t take long for Sir Thomas to recommend Anne, since Mary has recently married. He wants his family to have stature and money, and he thinks Anne can be the perfect mistress to King Henry. Anne protests at first, but gets persuaded when her uncle assures her she’ll marry a duke once this “assignment” is finished. The plan is put into motion, but when the king arrives, he finds himself more attracted to Mary than Anne. This makes Anne extremely jealous, especially when Mary ends up having the King’s child.
Having her two daughters vying for the affection of a married King makes their mother, Lady Elizabeth Boleyn (Kristin Scott Thomas) very uncomfortable to say the least. But with her husband dead set on pleasing the king, she has little say in the matter. As a last resort, they have Anne sent away to France after she runs off and marries an engaged man. However, she soon returns ready to seduce the King at all costs, even if it means he abandons her sister and their child.
If this all sounds sordid, I’m really only scratching the surface. I haven’t even mentioned how Anne, obsessed with power and stature, solicits her brother to impregnate her in order to provide the King a son. And we make a big deal out of Bill Clinton and an ugly intern! All of this might play as simply over the top, if not for Justin Chadwick’s controlled direction, and absolutely brilliant performances all around. It also helps that the film embraces its lurid subject matter, and never tries to seem above it all. As a result, we can’t take our eyes off the screen, despite the ultimately doomed story we are witnessing on the screen.
The emotions on display in The Other Boleyn Girl are real and timeless, and they are deeply felt throughout the film due to the performances of its main characters. Was the real Henry VIII as good looking as Eric Bana? Probably not, but his portrayal of Henry as a strong-minded man who could become incredibly weak-kneed by Anne’s advances is both convincing and humorous in equal parts. Portman has never been better as Anna, and her transition from proud sister to jealous, power crazed Queen-in-waiting is smooth and seamless. Johansson brings much-needed heart to the proceedings, and while she may have bedded a married man, we never doubt that it was indeed her heart and not her ego that led the way. When the consequences of Anne’s duplicity ultimately occur, it’s the expression on Johansson’s face that makes the true tragedy of the proceedings hit home.
The Other Boleyn Girl is an enthralling little morality tale, passionately told, and beautifully rendered. It’s the fastest “slow” movie you’ll ever see.