The 2008 film adaptation of The Other Boleyn Girl, a novel by Phillipa Gregory, presents a lavish historical spectacle without skimping on character development. Set in the England of King Henry VIII, the story includes both Boleyn sisters, Anne and Mary, and portrays how their family dangled them in front of the King to win influence. Henry is considered ripe for seducing with a young woman because his aging Queen, Catherine of Aragon, has failed to produce a male heir.
Anne Boleyn's father initially means to attract the favor of Henry with Anne, who her father sees as more ambitious and scheming. The younger sister Mary, however, catches Henry's eye, and he commands that she be brought to live at his royal court. Mary's father and uncle make clear in no uncertain terms that Mary is to abandon her new husband and submit to the King's advances. Ideally she will produce a male child and cement her family's relationship with the King that will bring wealth and power. The heartless use of the young woman, who is basically being prostituted by her male relatives, is shocking to watch and contemplate.
Meanwhile, Anne, who had been told to seduce Henry, is furious over her failure and terribly jealous of Mary's success, which includes birthing a boy. A rift develops between the sisters, and their ensuing rivalry pushes Anne to take great risks.
As history informs us, Anne gets her turn with Henry. She insists on marriage so that she can secure her family and best her sister Mary, whose son is a bastard. Anne seeks to bear a legitimate son and heir to the English throne. She becomes Queen, but soon learns how much she has gambled after bearing a girl, Elizabeth of later fame. Having forced Henry's split from the Roman Catholic Church so he could get rid of his old queen, Anne knows that Henry can certainly get rid of her. The disastrous results of Anne's gamble are well known.
The Other Boleyn Girl movie distinguishes itself with a fine script, written by Peter Morgan. While containing many nuances, the script is always understandable, smooth flowing, and well paced. The intensity of Anne's ambition is clearly portrayed, and the eruption of rivalry with Mary is deftly accomplished. The contrasts between the relationships each sister has with Henry are also striking and interesting.
The actors also do an exceptional job in their roles. Natalie Portman provides a convincing Anne Boleyn from the coquettish flirting of her heyday to her terrifying final moments before the axe man.
Scarlett Johansson is radiant as Mary. She performs with subtlety her transformation from sweet simple sister to royal mistress who must navigate the lethal whims of court.
Eric Bana plays Henry VIII in an innovative way. Instead of the usual big and blustering monarch who scoffs at excommunication, Bana plays Henry as a distant yet potent character. He seems to watch events unfold from outside them, even when he is orchestrating them. His aloof presentation of this famous character gently crafted a very kingly figure who was above every one. Eric Bana's Henry VIII creates at all times the effect that everyone is subject to him.
The Other Boleyn Girl is a fabulous movie. The momentous historic events of this drama play out mostly in the background. The story focuses instead on the fascinating relationships that altered a whole kingdom. The addition of the sister Mary injects the story with many emotional layers and gripping plot twists. I recommend it to people who appreciate character-driven dramas and historic settings.
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