There seems to be quite a revisionist movement afoot in Hollywood these days. After decades of picturing Henry VIII as a fat, bearded man who could always be seen tearing a bite out of a turkey leg, the type of role Charles Laughton would (and did) play, an image perpetuated by American and British film. In the last few years, there has been a definite effort to make the role seem sexier. Given the shenanigans the Tudors got into, this isn't surprising. Who wants to see Laughton bedding the beautiful, young actress playing Anne Boleyn, or Jane Seymour, or one of his other wives. So Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, the young Irish actor who made a memorable impression in, among other films, Woody Allen's "Matchpoint", is the King of England in Showtime's "The Tudors" and Eric Bana ("Hulk", "Munich") takes the throne of England in the new film "The Other Boleyn Girl".
Henry the VIII (Bana) is desperate for a male heir to take over the throne of the country when he dies. His wife, Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent), has just given birth to a stillborn son and he is so furious he can barely look at her. The scheming Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey, "Basic Instinct 2", British TV's "Viva Blackpool") knows the King will soon stray and fortune will favor whichever family can provide him with a mistress. His brother and sister-in-law, Sir Thomas (Mark Rylance) and Lady Elizabeth (Kristin Scott Thomas, "The English Patient") have two daughters, Anne (Natalie Portman) and Mary (Scarlett Johansson). The Duke convinces his brother they should host the King and manages to convince him if they were to arrange an affair between the King and Anne, the Boleyn family would be much the better for it. The King arrives and Anne is practically thrust into his face, but he is put off by her forceful nature and comes to fancy Mary instead. But as Mary has just married a merchant whom she loves, this complicates matters, but not much. Anne suspects her sister of going behind her back and their relationship becomes strained. When Mary becomes pregnant, and the pregnancy proves difficult, the family decides to try to make Anne the King's new mistress. But Anne wants more and has since learned how to make men give her what she wants.
"The Other Boleyn Girl", directed by Justin Chadwick (who comes from British television) and based on the popular novel by Philippa Gregory, is a handsomely mounted production, but it can't quite escape the soap opera elements at the core of the story.
I'm not sure how Gregory actually researched the subject matter, but this film and "The Tudors" seem to be plundering the same treasure chest of material. If even a small portion of this material is based in fact, the Tudors were one randy family - and this is a very different view of what we are used to. Royalty is supposed to be noble, elegant, above reproach. This is, of course, the fairy tale version we all grew up with, and anyone with half a wit realizes royalty are real people. And real people with a lot of power and money tend to abuse both. The Tudors were, apparently, no different. Bana's Henry the VIII carries on affairs with women when he becomes the slightest bored with his current wife. It doesn't help their relationship that his wife is unable to provide him with a male heir, someone to leave the throne to, to ensure the stability of the country. As he feels this is his lasting legacy, he feels it is of the utmost importance. His desperation to find an heir, and his randy nature, lead him to the comfort of many women. It even seems to be a well-known secret the King strays. The Duke of Norfolk, one of his trusted advisors, recognizes the signs and wants to ensure his family can benefit from the King's wandering eye.
While this is certainly intriguing, the problem is Bana is pretty bland. At one point, Henry the VIII learns one of his gifts has been refused and he blows up, shouting. This is about the extent of the fireworks from this man, the King of England, a man who would change the course of his country's history for good and bad. Throughout the rest of the film, he merely walks at a fast pace from one location to another, painting a vivid picture of his frustration, but little else.
Eric Bana has been in a number of films and we keep waiting for that "Great Eric Bana Performance". He came close in Spielberg's "Munich", but overall, his career has been one big disappointment. He's a good-looking guy, but I suspect he isn't a great actor, which is why his performances are so universally mediocre (i.e., "Hulk").
Natalie Portman plays Anne Boleyn, and she does a pretty good job. When approached by her father and uncle, she is initially intrigued by the idea of becoming the King's mistress. But when this doesn't work out, she is sent to France, to become a member of the Queen's court. Upon her return, she is a different woman. When the family needs her again, she decides to make sure she gets what she wants and starts to manipulate Henry. How does she do this? She refuses his attentions, his gifts and this makes him desire her all the more. In fact, she wants to be Queen. One small problem, Henry is already married and that pesky Catholic Church frowns on divorce. As Anne manipulates the situation to her advantage, and Henry starts to do things that will forever change the course of England's history, Portman makes Anne seem extremely, utterly devious and manipulative in her own right. She clearly did learn a thing or two in that French court.
This performance, full of different moods, actions and shenanigans is a role most actors dream for. It allows them to show off their skills. More often than not, this type of performance ultimately becomes hammy and overdone. But Portman manages to play all of the facets of Anne's character while keeping her just this side of human. She doesn't downplay it, she is just more subtle than I could have imagined or believed.
Scarlett Johannson plays Mary, the "less-attractive" daughter of the Boleyn family. So it comes to everyone's surprise, including the audience, when Henry falls for her instead. Mary is supposed to be plain and simply seems more boring than anything else. She wants to marry a common merchant and doesn't seem to have the designs her sister has, so when Henry favors her, she pleads with her family to convince him to take Anne instead. When this doesn't work, she agrees, for the sake of her family. Mary is not the "less-attractive" daughter. She is simply the less-interesting daughter. As the story begins, the two sisters are inseparable. When the King favors Mary, this puts a strain on their relationship because Anne doesn't believe Mary didn't seduce the monarch. Later, she returns to the court, to plead with Henry to spare Anne's live. He asks her "Why are you here?" Apparently, he has as much trouble as the rest of us figuring out why she even cares about her sister, because she shows so little emotion.
Kristin Scott Thomas plays Lady Elizabeth Boleyn and she is quite good. As a female living in this society, she has a very definite idea of what her role is and could be. Because she has to live by the stringent rules governing women, she is frustrated. But she is not without a certain amount of power. She is frustrated, angered, maddened and annoyed by her husband and brother-in-law's manipulation of her daughters, of their efforts to basically prostitute the two young ladies. She is fully aware their new roles could help the family, but she recognizes how morally wrong the idea is.
The film is, as mentioned, handsomely mounted, and despite the soap opera strains in the story, it is an interesting film but it would be a better film with a more mature director at the helm. In virtually every scene, there is at least one shot looking through a doorway, panning across a railing, looking out from the interior of a coach, the fabric fringe obscuring the view, looking through wooden fraught work. It simply becomes annoying. Chadwick is trying to give us the feel of how conspiratorial this society was, how people were likely eavesdropping on everything. But this technique is overused, and abused by about the fifth time it happens. Then, every time it occurs, it stands out like a glaring thumb and draws attention to the fact we are watching a film. When we become conscious we are watching a film, it draws us back to the real world, ruining any chance we have of getting lost in this time, this world, this land of make believe.
For that, you are probably better off turning on the television and catching the latest episode of "The Tudors".