The Other Boleyn Girl

I’ve mentioned before that I’m something of a Tudor history buff; I didn’t perhaps mention why. I grew up in a remote part of rural England, in a small village that happened to be near the birthplace of the infamous Anne Boleyn. Anne is the first historical figure I ever really became aware of, and my entire childhood was steeped in stories about this glamorous, grasping woman who rose above her station, married a King, and suffered the tragic consequences of her social climbing. (Anne is a perpetual reminder of what it means to be British: class matters, you’re a whore even if you don’t sleep around, we’ll loathe you for your uppitiness but root for you for 500 years as long as you’re the underdog.) So Anne Boleyn has been with me since childhood, a kind of wayward sister, a symbol of all the immutable, closed-minded, stultifying things I always hated about the old country.

So it was with anticipation that I went to see The Other Boleyn Girl the other evening. I had of course read Philippa Gregory’s book (there’s a fascinating insight into her historical research on her website), and being completely in love with Natalie Portman, I was really looking forward to the movie. But what can I say? Three days later and Anne Boleyn is still with me, but the film – the film was something of a disappointment. 

For the “show – don’t tell” constructs of film making, it was always going to be difficult to turn Anne’s sister Mary – famous only for being a dim, passive pawn – into the lead figure of any movie. Scarlett Johansson does a good job, but ultimately, Mary is only ever going to be the other Boleyn girl in this story. This has always been about Anne, and Natalie Portman is great. But she’s ultimately let down by a script that attempts History 101, in scenes shot with too few extras and too few costume changes, and with raggedy, fast-paced editing that makes the film feel like a first draft.

Even the Kent locations don’t ring true; although the Tudor homes of Penshurst Place and Knole Park feature significantly, they always feel like sets, and the execution scene (kudos for the glum and unusual ending for a Hollywood movie) is played out at Dover Castle, rather than in the Tower of London, where Anne was actually killed and dumped in an unmarked grave. It kind of feels disrespectful. 

Fortunately, Visit Britain again shows that movie tourism does not need actual locations to generate visitor numbers – it can simply be “inspired by”……..

For what it’s worth, here’s how I see Anne’s story: Born into a world where high-born women are merely bargaining chips in the power games of their male relatives, she is well educated and extremely well travelled. Lady-in-waiting to Margaret of Austria, Queen Claude of France and Catherine of Aragon, the Queen of England, she’s at home and adept in the world of royal courts. She’s not pretty but she’s bright and she’s funny and she knows how to use her charms. When her male relatives decide to pimp her to the King in return for their own glories, Anne has precisely zero say in the matter (if you want any proof of how badly the English treated their noble women, just read the story of the sweet, principled Lady Jane Grey) So when presented with this ultimatum, this woman accepts what has been dealt her, but not how she will play the game herself. She completely takes control of her own destiny within these constraints – she becomes Queen of England! The risks she is prepared to undertake in order to sustain this – child birth was truly life threating for women in the 1500s – only reinforce her brilliance.

It’s no wonder the English wouldn’t let her be. And it’s no wonder that 500 years later, she’s still eclipsing all the other characters in middling movies.