Ah, those boring old history lessons you used to sit through at school. Flies buzzing outside the window in the somnambulant summer air. The teacher droning on about some period of history that you knew little about and cared about even less. Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived. Six wives. Creation of Protestantism. Blah Blah Blah. Boring boring boring.
Yes, teachers have a lot to answer for. For the reality of the Tudor period was a lot different to the way it was taught. Henry VIII as a fat, ginger, elder statesman? Do me a favour. The man was a diplomat, a poet, a hunter. He was sexy. He ruled over one of the most turbulent and fascinating periods of human history. He married six times and had countless mistresses. His second wife, Anne Boleyn was executed. Not for the crime of not having a son, as we were taught. No. She was executed for incest.
However, recently there has been a bit of an effort through the media to tell a more accurate portrayal of this most important of times. The Other Boleyn Girl was published as a novel in 2002, and was subsequently made as a low budget TV film. Then in 2007, American television told a bawdy version of the relationship between Anne Boleyn and Henry in the TV series The Tudors. The series was dense with political intrigue and sex, taking it's time to work through such a well-worn story. There may have been inaccuracies in the story from time to time - but the series was the closest yet to getting to the kernel of truth within stories that have become almost myth over time.
Against the background of this successful TV series, the BBC again decided to have a go at The Other Boleyn Girl - throwing in a bigger budget and star names in the hope of producing a crossover success that would play just as well in the cinema as it would on TV screens.
So, as the film begins Henry's first marriage is already on the rocks due to the lack of a male heir. Henry takes a mistress, Mary Boleyn who has been manoeuvred into court and positioned into the King's favour by her parents, who are desperate for the prestige and status that came from having a daughter sleeping with the King of England. As his marriage further falters, however, it is the altogether more headstrong Anne that begins to attract the King's attention.
So, against this backdrop we have what should be a fascinating study that works on many levels. The machinations of the family, the political upheavals, and the central relationships should make for riveting drama. Sadly, however, the film ends up being the modern day equivalent of those boring history lessons you used to have as a child. And I hated this nearly as much as I hated them
The reasons why this film fails are myriad. But we must start with the acting. Eric Bana (King Henry VIII) is a fine actor but he is given so little to do here that his role is almost a cameo. When he does appear, it is usually in relation to one of the two Boleyn sisters, and the lack of chemistry on screen is palpable. Scarlett Johansson as Mary does a lot of pouting but quite simply lacks the screen presence to lighten up the film. Natalie Portman as Anne has by far the most interesting and meaty role in the film, but utterly wastes it - playing Anne as a soap character rather than a living breathing character. There are many examples of this, but the best is when she is getting desperate as the net closes in on her towards the end of her life. When she asks her brother (played by Jim Sturgess) to sleep with her to begat the much longed for male child, instead of getting a sense of the inner turmoil within the character we are just treated to a series of ridiculous posturing and hysterical dialogue.
So, the main triumvirate do a very poor job of bringing their characters to the screen, at times (Bana) looking like they would rather be anywhere else than on a Tudor film set. This malaise also spreads to the supporting cast. There is nothing wrong with the talent on display here. Sturgess was excellent in Across The Universe but fails miserably here, and other actors such as Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Benedict Cumberbatch all look like they are sleep-walking through proceedings.
Another major part of the problem is the script. If the actors bring proceedings perilously close to the world of soap opera, it is only because of the poor dialogue that they are given to work with. From Henry VIII acting like some kind of petty gangster - threatening Mary with death if he ever sees her again at one point, through to the risible dialogue and breathless “emoting” between Anne and her brother, the script is pretty flawed all the way through the film. Coupled with this is direction which could best be described as pedestrian. Veteran, if you could call it that, of numerous episodes of The Bill and other such high class British TV series, director Justin Chadwick brings a “Sunday Night TV” feel to this film. He moves his camera with very little imagination or flair, and it would appear that all the budget was spent on the stars and the sets, as the lighting and composition of the shots is quite simply dull and uninspiring. There are only so many times you can place the corner of a stately home on the edge of a frame and call it “arty”. This over-reliance on the same techniques over and over again just shows the director to be a one-trick pony without a decent trick.
In addition to these near fatal flaws, what finally tips this film over the edge is that none of the characters portrayed elicit any kind of sympathy from the viewer whatsoever. Everyone is out for their own advancement, not afraid to step on anyone else (even their own flesh and blood) to achieve their goals. This may be true to the period, but every human being has complex sides to their nature. Not everyone in real life is black or white. The Tudors realised this, managing to portray the machinations in the King's court, whilst portraying complex, three dimensional characters that had motivations beyond the personal. All that background is sorely lacking here, and leaves us without one single character to believe in. To like.
The Other Boleyn Girl had so much promise. The style of the BBC, allied with some A list talent, and a fascinating, complex period of our history. Sadly we are left with a turgid mess, an historical soap opera, with very few redeeming features. The costumes may be gorgeous, and the sets and scenery look authentic, but maybe a bit more money spent on the script, actors who are committed to their roles, and a director with some imagination and flair might have saved this film. Sadly, I cannot recommend this in the slightest.
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