The Other Boleyn Girl

BY ANDREW MOODY

In 2008, several years before either Game of Thrones or The Crown debuted on TV, Eric Bana starred as Henry the VIII in The Other Boleyn Girl, opposite starlets Natalie Portman and Scarlet Johannson who played Anne and Mary Boleyn. Now the movie has reached streaming service Netflix. After compulsively gorging on the first four seasons of Peter Morgan’s The Crown, I realised to my consternation that another season is in the works, and I’d have to handle the kind of cliffhanger that only a world class TV series can force its fans to endure. Scrolling through a suggested list of other titles I might enjoy, Netflix threw up The Other Boleyn Girl, with a screenplay by Peter Morgan, creator of The Crown, and starring one of my acting heroes Eric Bana, who had exploded into Hollywood with his no-holds-barred performance as true life criminal Mark Brandon ‘Chopper’ Read in Andrew Dominik’s Chopper (2000).

Taking place in the court of King Henry, the largely fictionalised plot concerns the two Boleyn girls Anne and Mary, whose father gambles with his daughters sensuality in order to ensure at least one of them will bear a son for the king, whose wife, Catherine of Aragon, is barren. Adapted from the 2001 best selling novel by Phillipa Gregory, it’s by no means a masterpiece, often hysterical and a little ridiculous.

Historian Alex Von Tunzelmann criticised The Other Boleyn Girl for its portrayal of the Boleyn family and Henry VIII, citing factual errors. She stated, “The film’s portrayal of Mary (Scarlet Johannson), this Boleyn girl as a shy, blushing damsel could hardly be further from the truth.” Tunzelmann further criticised the depiction of Anne as a “manipulative vixen” and Henry as “nothing more than a gullible sex addict in wacky shoulder pads.” She published her review under the title The Other Boleyn Girl: Hollyoaks in Fancy Dress.

Since this is a fictionalised history, it has more in common with Game of Thrones than it does with Morgan’s later work The Crown. Even though GoT wimped off the screen with a climax that could not, and will not ever please any viewer, in its best episodes the delicate art of Machiavellian intrigue and cunning in the halls of power were deliciously, entertainingly subversive.

Peter Bradshaw awarded the film three out of five stars in The Guardian, writing that it was a “flashy, silly, undeniably entertaining Tudor romp…It is absurd yet enjoyable, and playing fast and loose with English history is a refreshing alternative to slow and tight solemnity; the effect is genial, even mildly subversive … It is ridiculous, but imagined with humour and gusto: a very diverting gallop through the heritage landscape.”

The film doesn’t quite know how to fit its proto-feminist narrative into the context of the Tudor court, and as a result doesn’t resolve its position on the monarchy, and on Henry’s sanity and abuses of power. Is Henry a psychopath? The filmmakers don’t seem to know either, and the creation of the Church of England by King Henry appears to be the work of an ambiguous, unhinged mind. A coda at the end of the film wants to imply a feminist victory when it announces that it was Henry and Anne’s daughter Elizabeth that would save King Henry’s monarchy and legacy, not a male heir, but didn’t comment on the fact that her mother Anne was beheaded by the King for no real reason.

An interesting curio then, to be seen as both a stepping stone towards Peter Morgan’s later achievement in The Crown, and a trashy, compulsive love triangle with three of the most beautiful actors of the 21st century. If it’s a soap opera you are seeking, as opposed to a historical document, then you could do far worse.