The Art of Being a Woman
“Your face is the sun. One shouldn’t gaze too long.” So says King Henry VII (Eric Bana) to his latest object of affection, the most luminous Mary Boleyn (Scarlett Johansson). Though she’s not precisely keen to bed the king (she’s recently married to a nondescript fellow, William Carey [Benedict Cumberbatch], and sex with him was decidedly un-fun), she is, apparently, won over by Henry’s pulpy poetry. Cue the golden-hued light and sweet string accompaniment, as close-ups on her enraptured face reveal that Mary has indeed found her true love.
Based on the bodice-ripping novel by Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl is, in a word, ridiculous. That’s not to discount the outrageousness of the period and place it depicts: Henry’s court was surely thick with intrigue, betrayal, and desire, not to mention seething with rage and resentment of varying degrees. This much Justin Chadwick’s movie represents, in a lush, expensive-costume-movie way. No one here ever walks: instead, they stride, with cameras tight on intent faces, rustly-gowned ladies or poofy-sleeved guards in tow. And no one makes a decision without at least some cursory and wholly malevolent scheming, conducted in arty shadows and ponderous close-ups. And oh my goodness, when an urgent matter pends, someone will be galloping on a large, loud horse across the verdant landscape, preferably shot from a low angle.
To be fair, the movie doesn’t exactly pretend to be anything other than fiction, even if it does drop a lot of historical names. But if the costumes are grand and the plotting sensational, the characterizations are flat and silly. The premise is drawn from recorded events: when Henry’s wife Catherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent) is apparently unable to bear a male heir, he looks elsewhere to ensure his royal legacy and fulfill his lusty urges. On hearing the news, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey) suggests that his brother-in-law Sir Thomas (Mark Rylance), pimp his daughter Anne (Natalie Portman). She’s unmarried and legendarily difficult, but she’s pretty and sturdy, and if she produces the son Henry so dearly wants, the family’s fortunes are likely set for life (assuming something doesn’t go wrong and the notoriously moody king switches out whatever he’s promised them).
At first Anne and her mother Lady Elizabeth (Kristin Scott Thomas) are equally reluctant: though marrying for love is plainly a fantasy that doesn’t pay off, neither is crazy about the prospect of a fling with a king inclined to abandon his lovers, leaving them in unmarriageable states, to boot. Even as Elizabeth suggests there are ways to wrangle the men in their lives (“Allowing men to believe they are in charge, that is the art of being a woman”), it’s plain enough that their consent to this scheme is a first step toward tragedy.
The second step has to do with Anne’s conceit. Apparently she’s constitutionally unable to feign feminine weakness or “allow” a man to best her, and so when the king and his crew come by the Boleyns’ estate one weekend (their arrival punctuated by close-ups of bloody meat chopped and chopped again). The plan is that he might be “taken with” Anne, but she inadvertently leads him into a disastrous hunting party accident. Returned to the home on a gurney, the king is embarrassed and angry, and so redirects his desirous gaze on the girl assigned to nurse him, Mary. As she dabs at the bloody scratches on his hand, he decides to have her, her husband, and her family moved to the court, so that he might have access to her when he pleases.
Thus begins the sisters’ deadly rivalry, as they are cast repeatedly as dire opposites: Anne begrudges the fact that Mary is “chosen,” Mary falls in love with Henry’s silly metaphors, and soon enough, the troublesome Anne is sent off to the French court to learn a more sophisticated line of attack, and Mary is pregnant. All the while, decisions are made by Norfolk and Thomas and even the nondescript fellow, Elizabeth grumbling in the background. The one male family member left out of the wheeling-and-dealing is Anne and Mary’s brother George (Jim Sturges), as he remains caught between them (Anne is especially jealous if he spends a minute more with Mary than with her), as well as determinedly feminized—essentially told what to do and showing great emotion on being so told.
While the film, following the book, has a vaguely “feminist” underpinning, based in the sisters’ enduring bond despite all the goings-on, and even a bit in Anne’s return from France and willful havoc-wreaking on Henry’s court and heart (“Usually,” he tells Mary, whom he throws over for Anne, “my instincts are sharp but with your sister, she has a power over me”). It is a matter of historical agreement that in order to rid himself or Catherine and marry Anne, Henry rejected the Catholic Church and jumpstarted the Church of England, though his route to that substantial decision is here bent and twisted. The movie helpfully fills in most lurches in plot, with the occasional mini-scene where someone spits up expository dialogue.
But such unwieldy mechanisms only draw attention to the movie’s narrative contrivances, while indicating the characters’ implausible “motivations,” as well as the broader causing-and-effecting. By the time the siblings are conniving an incestuous ploy in order to thwart Henry’s upcoming decision to write the whole lot of the Boleyns out of his court and into a historical footnote, the movie’s supreme loopiness is long since secured. While Anne was indeed beheaded on charges of adultery, incest, and treason, the film’s literal rendering of the court’s decision is almost painful to see. This not because of the fumbling and tears involved, but because it again wrenches characters in and out of emotional torments in order to redeem both Boleyn girls, but in the end making them seem only other and more other.