Having never read Philippa Gregory’s novel, I remember the first time I saw the previews for The Other Boleyn Girl, which seemed to set up the movie as the ultimate catfight between two beautiful women played by Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson over the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Eric Bana and thought, well, Scarlett’s got the edge on this one, given the amount of press she’s gotten for her, ahem… exploits (I’m still trying to block out the Benicio in an elevator tale that I’m hoping is a rumor). After talking to a few people who’d read the novel, I found I wasn’t alone in my thoughts as a friend who came along to the screening also mentioned that it seemed like an odd casting choice to have Scarlett Johansson portray the pretty, sweet and innocent Mary Boleyn and cast Natalie Portman as the wickedly scheming tease Anne Boleyn, yet only a few minutes into the film, we realized they’d made the right choice. After having subjected Jude Law to an auto accident in the streets of London with her very appearance and tantalized Clive Owen in Closer, Natalie Portman (who indeed kicked off her career in Lolita like roles in The Professional and Beautiful Girls) has become one of our most fascinating and versatile actresses—a consummate professional who can tackle any role and accent (from Where the Heart Is to Cold Mountain)-- she’s come into her own and has the perfect platform in British television director Justin Chadwick’s latest feature film The Other Boleyn Girl.
Chronicling the Boleyn family from children playing in the field where they are observed by parents Lady Elizabeth (Kristin Scott Thomas, thankfully getting a chance to convey emotion) and Sir Thomas (Mark Rylance), they’re summed up as Mary, the sweet and fairer golden-tressed beauty verses the eldest daddy’s girl Anne, who while pretty, isn’t as classically beautiful as her sister, yet she has an edge about her that enables her to go from seductive to manipulative at the drop of the hat. It’s precisely this quality that inspires her father along with her morally reprehensible social climbing uncle The Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey) to set Anne (Portman) up as flirtatious bait in the hopes that she may catch the heart and body of powerful hottie and King Henry Tudor a.k.a. Henry VIII (Eric Bana) who may be in the market for a mistress, seeing as though his wife Catherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent) has yet to bear him a son. After a spill that injures his masculine pride more than his body that one wonders may have been spurred on by the aggressively suggestive Anne, Henry’s attentions fall to the young woman nursing him back to health, the newly married and simple Mary (Johansson) whom he soon orders to come to court under the guise of being his wife, the Queen’s newest lady in waiting. Although her sister is invited along as well, Mary quickly learns his real motives when he summons her to his room almost immediately and the two begin an affair which blossoms into love on her side and something very nearly similar for Henry that deepens when she becomes pregnant with his child. While we’re never quite sure what becomes of Mary’s husband, the jealous Anne receives her comeuppance when she maneuvers her way into marrying a man betrothed to another before it’s annulled and she’s shipped off to France but she gets the last laugh when she’s sent to divert the king from taking yet another mistress as Mary, now bedridden and in a fragile state, looks on worried for her child. Despite the fact that her very purpose is to keep his attentions on Mary, we all know Anne’s true motives, especially women who have most likely gone to school with at least one (or in my case) several girls who make it their goal to steal men no matter what the cost, almost more for sport and social stance rather than for any real affection. Anne works her magic, toying with Henry like a puppy, sending back his gifts and bending him to her will before she’ll give him any hope of her body (his first wish) or her heart (his second) and it’s these scandalous motives that sets in motion the legendary events to follow as she tries to become Queen.
A sixteenth century soap opera, exquisitely photographed with enough sumptuous art direction and costuming to dazzle the senses in the same way as did Sofia Coppola’s similarly themed eye candy epic Marie Antoinette. However, while Antoinette was more of a modern and sensuous take on history, Boleyn, which was originally adapted for British television in 2003, is strengthened by its complicated plot and exceptional acting. Despite the grumbling of some theatergoers of seeing Bana as a far more intoxicating and alternately sensitive yet frightening Henry VIII, the casting of him in the lead I feel augmented the Boleyn’s feud for his affections and made it a bit more relatable. And as for the writing, there’s no more capable scripter than The Queen’s Peter Morgan who as Variety’s Derek Elley wrote not only “eliminates many of the more fanciful potboiler elements of the novel” but also managed “the difficult trick of making the narrative crystal-clear without dumbing down the actual material.” In other words, go see it and pick a side, even though it is Portman’s exceptional turn that, like Henry VIII, you will find commands the most attention.