At what price power? At what cost family loyalty? And how strong the bonds of sisterly love? These are the questions at the heart of the 16th century soap opera The Other Boleyn Girl, heavily based on the bestselling novel by Philippa Gregory and loosely based on the historical antics of Henry VIII and the Boleyn sisters.
"To get ahead in this world, you need more than fair looks and a kind heart," Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) tells his wife, Lady Elizabeth Boleyn (Kristin Scott Thomas), in an opening-scene walk through an idyllic English countryside. Sir Thomas—who "possesses" both these qualities in his fair-looking daughter Anne (Natalie Portman) and his kind-hearted daughter Mary (Scarlett Johansson)—is concerned with such matters as he's a man of humble means. He is not, however, a man of humble ambition.
Which makes him ripe for the schemes of his brother-in-law, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey). The Duke, a confidante of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana), has shrewdly noticed that the King will likely soon be looking for a mistress. His wife, Katherine, has been unable to produce him a male heir, a fact that's brought him great distress and put strain on the royal marriage. The power-hungry Duke realizes that whoever provides for the King's "needs" will be in a unique position of favor. So the Duke eyes his nieces Anne and Mary as so much currency and leverage.
Instead of being repulsed by the idea of pimping out his daughters, Sir Thomas sees this as the chance he's been waiting for. He's just married off the quieter, younger Mary to a respectable local man, choosing to save her better-looking older sister for a more ambitious and lucrative match. And even though the role is that of mistress instead of wife, you don't get any more lucrative than bedding with the King of England. Anne, a spirited, ambitious girl herself, agrees to the scheme.
But before Anne can entice the King, he's distracted by honest, good-hearted Mary. The family lays a heavy guilt trip on horrified Mary, stressing that the fate of the entire clan rests on this royal opportunity. Family loyalty wins out over newlywed fidelity, and Mary makes her way to the royal bedchamber. Once there, however, she finds surprising tenderness … and eventually love. This pairing thrills Mary's father and uncle, and incenses her sister Anne, who's soon exiled to France for her rebellious response.
And this is only the first 30 minutes of intrigue, betrayal, manipulation, and heartbreak. There's another hour and a half of seduction, adultery, miscarriage, forbidden love, secret pregnancy, and false accusation. It's pretty much a train-wreck of amoral ambition. Jerry Springer would give his right arm for a crack at the power-thirsty Boleyns and lusty, egomaniacal Henry.
Though the characters are far from admirable, the acting is superb. Johansson gives a nuanced performance as the less-attractive sister (a role that requires some range for this young stunner); she makes unbelievable choices seem both believable and almost admirable. Portman deftly seethes with jealousy and ambition; she makes manipulation a beguiling and horrible art. Bana infuses King Henry VIII with appropriate levels of bravado, frustration, and unbridled passion; he makes a dictatorship look as fearsome and vulnerable as history's proven it to be.
The costumes are as rich as the monarchy, layers of velvet and brocade shouting of wealth and power. The few pastoral and seaside scenes are also rich in scope and detail. The overall effect is a visual feast for the eyes, a welcome treat as we keep wanting to look away from the moral descent of the Boleyns.
It's this moral descent that creates the main conundrum of the film. The story is simultaneously historical and horrifying. It's an intriguing study of 16th century power struggles and the shortcomings of a dictatorship, and also a grotesque look at unchecked ambition and passion. While it's good that the film shows the ugly consequences of these character qualities, rather than glorifying them as many movies do, do we really need to see the path to corruption, deceit, and incest illuminated so starkly to know these things are wrong? At what point are we simply marinating in the sin of our broken world (and feeling the need to shower off the filth when we're through)?
It is fascinating to watch the way England broke with Rome and the Catholic Church, stark evidence (as if it's really needed) of the grandiose things people will do in the pursuit of love—or, more realistically, lust. Such far-reaching consequences for such short-lived gratification.
And perhaps, besides lush visuals and laudable acting, that's what The Other Boleyn Girl offers us—a cautionary tale of what unchecked ambition and lust can do to a person, a family, a nation. That's if you can stomach the story that drives home this sobering lesson.
>Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- What's the driving motivation of each of the Boleyns?
- At one point, Lady Elizabeth asks her husband, "When was it that people stopped viewing ambition as sin and began seeing it as a virtue?" How does this question apply to our culture … and perhaps to your life?
- Trace the ways in which women are both powerless and powerful throughout the film. Do you see any parallels to modern society?
- What do you think of Mary's decision to stand by her sister? Do you think this is admirable or foolish?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Other Boleyn Girl is rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content, and some violent images. Take all of these warnings seriously. The thematic elements include miscarriages, adultery, and incest. Though there's no nudity, the sexual content runs constantly throughout the film. And the violent images include a few beheadings. This is not for younger audiences, but only for mature viewers.
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