You don’t hear the term ‘bodice ripper” very often anymore. By definition it refers to a historical romance that emphasizes the sexual excitement of seduction and ‘ravishment,’ usually in intriguing settings and populated by royalty, pirates, highwaymen and wenches. In book form they often feature Fabio on the cover, in a new movie set in the court of Henry VIII Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman both have their bodices ripped by Eric Bana as the womanizing king.
Based on a historical novel written by British author Philippa Gregory The Other Boleyn Girl is a melodrama centered around the life of little known 16th-century aristocrat, Mary Boleyn (Johansson), who was the sister of Queen Anne Boleyn (Portman) and one-time mistress of King Henry VIII of England.
At the beginning of the film the Boleyn family is minor aristocracy with a desire to better their station in life by marrying off their two beautiful daughters, Mary and Anne, to wealthy men. When a scheming uncle cooks up a plan for Anne to seduce the King of England, become his mistress and hopefully provide him with a much needed male heir the simple family is introduced to the Machiavellian workings of the Royal Court. Things take an unexpected turn when Mary, an uncomplicated soul with a good heart, is actually the first to catch the King’s eye. Soon, however, his attentions turn to her devious older sister Anne.
In order to woo Anne he must first dispose of his wife, Queen Katherine. This split causes a rift with the Pope and directly leads to the creation of the Church of England. When Anne is unable to give birth to a son she finds herself alienated from the King and later the subject of scandalous charges that lead to her execution.
While watching The Other Boleyn Girl I couldn’t help but think what a different movie this would have been had been made by MGM sixty years ago. Certainly the bodice ripping aspects would have been toned down in favor of the kind of smoldering, suppressed sexuality that dominated mid-Century Hollywood films, but specifically I was thinking about the casting.
In the 40s or 50s the cast would likely have included Bette Davis as the devious Jane and, maybe Celeste Holm as Mary, the kind hearted sister. Those actors would have the heft needed to bring a sense of drama to the proceedings. To paraphrase another old time Silver Screen actress, “They had faces back then.”
As it is Portman and Johansson, both good actors, simply don’t have the gravitas needed to convincingly portray the conniving inner workings of the court. Portman’s performance as Anne would be better suited to a teen drama set in high school than palace life in Tudor England.
Other than the somewhat fatal casting flaw The Other Boleyn Girl has, at least, production value to spare. Period details are nicely presented with costume design by Sandy Powell who also worked on Shakespeare in Love and impressive locations such as Penshurst Place, Knole Park, Dover Castle in Kent, the City of Bath, and Bude in Cornwall.
Historians should be warned that The Other Boleyn Girl plays fast and loose with the facts—Mary was actually the older sister, rumored to be promiscuous and not the blushing flower she is portrayed as in the movie—and really amps up the melodrama. There are soap operas that don’t have this much intrigue. It’s interesting to learn about the brutal Royal court, a gossipy and cruel place so vicious the other ladies-in-waiting make the London tabloid press look like Miss Manners.
The Other Boleyn Girl plays like a mix of Masterpiece Theatre and Clueless, an awkward blend of historical drama and modern storytelling that skates over important details—was the love of Anne the only reason to break from Rome and form a new church?—while spending too much time on the more salacious aspects of the whole sordid tale.