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The Other Boleyn Girl

For awhile, it seemed the 16th century Tudor dynasty, was the flavour of the month. There was “Elizabeth: the Golden Age”, the bodice ripper soap opera “The Tudors” television series, and there was this entertaining movie, based on Philippa Gregory’s 2002 best-selling novel. As a fan of Gregory’s Tudor series of novels, I was curious to see the big screen version of “The Other Boleyn Girl”. (This wasn’t the novel’s first adaptation; it first appeared as a 2003 British television mini-series starring Jodhi May.)

Even before “The Other Boleyn Girl” was released, there was controversy. This made for some heated conversation on the movie board at imdb.com. A draft of the script had been leaked online and it contained a controversial scene that doesn’t appear in the book, which itself contains vague but controversial speculation about Anne’s desperation to have a son after a miscarriage. (That particular bit of supposition is also addressed in the film version but the scriptwriter and no doubt the producers balked at what the book hinted at.)

Based on a 700-page-plus novel, “The Other Boleyn Girl” is necessarily distilled to its main elements. That is the main course of Gregory’s literary banquet: the romantic competition of sisters Mary (Scarlett Johansson) and Anne (Natalie Portman) for the love of a king (Eric Bana) and what happens because of that. And what’s a romantic costume drama without scheming, betrayals and intrigue?

When the cunning Duke of Norfolk (played by a deliciously nasty David Morrissey) hears that Queen Katherine has once more miscarried, he sees a way of potentially increasing family fortunes. To curry favour with Henry, Norfolk persuades his brother-in-law to invite the king to a hunting party, with the purpose of pimping daughter Anne to Henry as a mistress. But Henry is turned off by Anne’s clumsy boldness and is attracted instead to Anne’s quiet—and just married sister—Mary.

Unwillingly, Mary goes to court, along with her resentful sister. And to her surprise, she falls in love with Henry. Anne also finds love, secretly marrying a courtier. Unfortunately her newly wed husband is already betrothed to another, with the king’s assent. Fearing the loss of expanding family fortunes should the news leak, Norfolk orders Anne into exile at the French court. When Mary becomes pregnant, both Henry and the Boleyns rejoice, albeit for different reasons. To keep the king’s eye from wandering while Mary is in her confinement, Anne is recalled from France. Resplendent in emerald green, this is a new Anne: witty, flirty and supremely confident. And she has ambitions of her own, to the annoyance of her uncle Norfolk. Henry is dazzled and in a heart-breaking scene, Mary is betrayed by sister and lover just moments after giving birth to Henry’s longed-for son.

But Anne’s not content to be a mere mistress. Her eye is on the ultimate prize, the crown. The politics of Henry’s severance with his first wife, Rome and the Catholic Church are quickly dispensed with. But there is a wonderful scene where soon-to-be-discarded Katherine magnificently pleads her case before her judges, including her vastly uncomfortable husband. As we know from history, Henry gets Anne and Anne gets the throne. But neither get what they really expected. And a king is dangerous when he doesn’t get what he wants.

The movie moves at a fast clip, so fast, you may not notice a few plot holes, such Mary’s husband disappearing partway without explanation. Natalie Portman’s performance is a pleasant surprise, especially to anyone (like me) used to her playing only good girl roles. Scarlett Johansson is fine as Mary, the moral centre and heart of the drama. Eric Bana tries hard but the part of Henry is underwritten, and he has little to do besides glower and look tormented. Consider him and his ripped torso eye candy. The cinematography is lovely, from golden fields to Anne’s gorgeous emerald green gown, everything simply shines. And history buffs will have fun picking out all the historical inaccuracies.

The DVD carries extras such as deleted scenes, court biographies and special featurettes. Warning to sensitive viewers: the PG-13 rated romance does contain a non-graphic rape scene.

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