There is a kind of comfort that comes from seeing, or reading, a story that you already know the broad strokes of. After all, we crave familiarity, and what’s more familiar than the tales and stories we heard in history class. Some stories are far more famous than others, some are incredibly nebulous despite the wealth of information available, and others are frequently changed around for the sake of a pleasing narrative. How can it be that the story of Anne Boleyn can be all three of these things at once?
The Other Boleyn Girl is not an original piece but an adaptation of the book by Phillipa Gregory, and the second one at that. Today, many have heard of shows like The White Queen, The White Princess, and The Spanish Princess across Starz. Each of them is adapted from a book by Phillipa Gregory, and The Other Boleyn Girl may well have benefited from a longer structure that a miniseries allows in some ways and been hampered by it in others. After all, almost everybody knows how it turned out for the second wife of the notorious Henry VIII.
The story begins with a brief prologue, wherein Sir Thomas Boleyn and Lady Elizabeth Boleyn are discussing the marital prospects of young Anne – her father is against the betrothal request as he believes that Anne is meant for greater things. Elizabeth chides him on expecting more from Anna than Mary, allowing the two to discuss Anne’s intellect and burgeoning ambition even as a young girl and Mary’s kindness – George Boleyn apparently deserved no notes. A passing knowledge of history means that you know Anne has an affair with the King of England, leaving many viewers surprised when Henry initiates an affair with Mary first. It is here, though, that the first major change in the story is seen.
In this film and the book it is based on, Anne is the eldest sister. Historically speaking, Anne is the youngest, and that is a critical detail in how her relationship with Henry VIII would unfold – her lack of presence in the English Court made her return the talk of the court. Even then, it would take almost half a decade for Henry to truly notice Anne. When adapting a book, though, you have to pick and choose which moments make it into your film – and as the book had made a daring change already, another would barely be a blip on the radar for the most casual of viewers.
Still, one aspect that the film capitalizes on well is the relationship between Anne, Mary, and most importantly, George – the all-important relationship that would be the ultimate downfall of the ambitious, tempestuous Queen of England.
English Court during the time of the film is a cutthroat world, but if you pay careful attention, you can pick out some details that make certain political decisions seem even more jarring in the modern sense. With talk of virtue and purity at the forefront of the period, watching the scandalous moves that families made in order to place their daughters in the eyes of the king seem at odds with everything that is talked about or supposedly believed in. Welcome to Court, where rules are only rules when you’re caught and vague suggestions when you aren’t.
Lady Elizabeth Boleyn says it well in her quote: “Treason? What is treason? Anything the king or his lawyers decide it to be. On a whim.” So, too, are the rules of the game – and no matter how savvy one is in the cutthroat world of 16th-century English politics, it can still end up with your head removed from your body.
Very briefly, there is mention of a woman by the name of Jane Seymour, the wife who would eventually produce Henry VIII’s only son. It’s almost a “blink, and you’ll miss it moment” that she’s a Lady in waiting for Queen Anne – and her cousin. Jane Parker, the Lady Rochford, is another figure who has a supporting role in the ousting of Queen Anne – marking the largest change in Anne’s story for this version. As George Boleyn’s wife, she has unprecedented access to the Queen and her family and witnesses the shocking plan to have Anne sleep with George to produce a new heir for the King. While Anne was charged with incest and other crimes, history has always doubted the validity of her charges.
With four wives succeeding her, it’s highly doubtful any charge levied against her was true, and this is where the film gives its shine – the choices that characters make, oftentimes with incomplete or inaccurate information, or colored by bias, cause the most damage and enact the highest consequences in the film. Which is, of course, par for the course in that time period of English history.
The Other Boleyn Girl was obviously made for Oscars buzz, as so many films are – but that is not a knock against it. Featuring actors who were both famous and up and coming at the time, a retrospective of the film’s cast causes immense amusement and a bit of bewilderment.
Anne Boleyn is played by Natalie Portman, and Mary Boleyn is played by Scarlett Johansson, but through the lens of today, it’s wildly out of place despite both actresses performing with amazing talent and subtly. The title, of course, is interesting in that Anne refers to herself as The Other Boleyn Girl, but history has dictated Mary to that role. In the film, just as in their history, they view each other for that title from time to time. In the end, a close relationship is destroyed by politics, ambition, greed, and pride. Aren’t they all?
Eric Bana leads as King Henry VIII, and though he gives a valiant portrayal, there are enough changes to his overall demeanor that were done to make him a more obvious villain than were outright necessary. A handful of other actors feature, either in supporting roles or bit parts, who would go on to make a name for themselves less than a decade later – including Andrew Garfield, Juno Temple, Eddie Redmayne, and, perhaps most surprisingly, Benedict Cumberbatch.