This is a 2008 movie, written by Peter Morgan and directed by Justin Chadwick, based on a “historical fiction” book by Philippa Gregory, and is ostensibly about Mary Boleyn, the lesser known older sister of Anne Boleyn, who was a previous mistress of King Henry VIII. The movie is meant to show the beginning and end of her affair with King Henry and what happened to her after the King tossed her aside and began pursuing her sister. I have not read the book that this film is based on but, despite how it was promoted, this film definitely puts most of the spotlight on Anne Boleyn.
They assembled a fantastic cast for the leads. Eric Bana plays King Henry VIII, Scarlett Johansson plays Mary and Natalie Portman plays Anne. I suppose with a star like Portman it was only inevitable that this film would focus a bit more on Anne’s character, than the title suggests (although at one point in the film Anne actually refers to herself as “the other Boleyn girl”). But the problems I have with this movie stem from its historical inaccuracies. Now, that in and of itself is not a deal-breaker for me, most historical films, including all the other films I’ve seen about The Tudor dynasty, make some changes for dramatic effect, including HENRY VIII, which I loved and just reviewed last night. I’m not one of those sticklers for details, as long as they get the basic essence of the character right. And that’s where this film fails, to me.
First, Mary is portrayed as the younger sister, while Anne is older, which is untrue. As the film begins, Mary is already engaged to be married, while her father and uncle (played by Mark Rylance and David Morrissey, respectively) conspire to have Anne become King Henry’s mistress in the hopes that this will give them greater influence and position in the King’s Court. They know that the King is frustrated because his wife, Queen Katherine (Ana Torrent) has been unable to give birth to a legitimate male heir, after a series of miscarriages, and believe that this will make him more susceptible to Anne’s charms. However, when King Henry comes to their estate to visit the family, Anne inadvertently causes the King to fall off his horse while hunting, and Mary is sent to attend to his wounds. During this time, he becomes infatuated with her, and ends up summoning her to Court to become his mistress, which drives Anne mad with jealousy against her own sister, believing this to have been deliberate.
None of that is true, as Mary had already been in Court had met and had an affair with King Henry (after previously having an affair with the King of France, which this film ignores, in favor of portraying Mary as a sexually inexperienced innocent girl when Henry seduced her), which ended before Anne even met him. Nor did Anne have any interest in Henry initially, and while her family did take advantage of the King’s favor as he became interested in Anne, her father certainly didn’t encourage her to seduce the King in the first place.
Anyway, both Mary and Anne become Ladies In Waiting to Queen Katherine and when Mary becomes pregnant with the King’s child, and therefor unable to continue her sexual relationship with the King while she is pregnant, Anne makes her move on Henry, and he quickly becomes infatuated with her, and she demands he ends the relationship with her sister, if he ever wants to be with her, which he does.
After Mary gives birth to the King’s son, named Henry (in real life, it was never confirmed that Mary’s son was Henry VIII’s, that was just a rumor, albeit an unlikely one, since he never acknowledged the boy as his son the way he did his other illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy) , the King has her sent away and begins to aggressively pursue Anne, who refused to become his mistress and instead pushed for him to divorce Queen Katherine, and marry Anne instead. In order to achieve this, Henry first petitions the Pope for an annulment, and after many years of negotiations, he finally breaks from the Catholic Church completely, and forms a new Church of England, which almost tears apart the country in a Civil War. In anger of what he was forced to do just to have Anne, Henry rapes her (which also never happened), and she gets pregnant, and so they marry.
When rumors swirl that Anne had been married to Lord Henry Percy (which never happened in real life, but the film does show that they secretly married, but then it was annulled by Anne’s parents when they found out), thereby making her marriage to the King illegitimate (women were, of course, expected to be virgins before marriage), Mary is summoned by the King to confirm or deny the rumors. Despite how Anne treated her before, Mary lies to the King for her, and Anne’s life is spared. But things don’t get better as Anne gives birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, instead of a son. But then she gets pregnant again and has a miscarriage. Here’s where the film makes it’s most egregious rewrite of history, as Anne tells Mary and their brother George (Jim Sturgess) about her miscarriage, and how dangerous it could be for her if the King finds out, since he’s already disappointed in her failure to give him a son, she suggests that George have sex with her to get her pregnant.
In real life, both Anne and George were convicted of incest and executed, but EVERY historian agrees that those were false charges, just made to look Anne as bad as possible so Henry could get rid of her. There is ZERO evidence that either would have ever even thought of such as thing. But this film shows Anne practically begging George to have sex with her to get her pregnant, and he initially agrees, to the disgust of Mary, although they are unable to actually go through with it. However, George’s wife, Jane (Juno Temple) secretly overheard the exchange, and rats them out, leading to their arrest. George is tried and executed, as are a few other men who were falsely accused of sleeping with Anne, and then Anne is likewise tried in court and convicted. As she awaits execution, Mary privately goes to the King, and pleads for mercy. Henry tells her that he will commute Anne’s execution before it’s carried out, in order to show the people how merciful he is, and Mary goes to visit Anne in the cell which she is being held, to give her the good news.
This is the 2nd major transgression this film takes regarding Anne’s character. In real life, Anne gave a dignified final speech at her execution, praising the King, blaming no one, and accepting her fate. Again, all credible historians agree that her speech showed amazing strength of Anne’s character, and that she went to her grave with dignity and honor. But this film shows that the only reason she gave such a great speech is because she expected the King to pardon her at the last minute. But just as she ends her speech, she sees a royal messenger hand Mary, who was watching in the crowd, also expecting Anne to be saved, a message where the King tells her that he will not spare Anne’s life, and warns her never to speak to him again. And, thus, Anne is beheaded.
All of that, and other things just really bothered me. While Anne Boleyn was no Saint, she was also not the She-Devil that this film portrayed her to be. All throughout the film she is shown to be cold-hearted and manipulative, ready to use anyone, including her beloved sister, to get what she wants. That’s really unfair, and what makes it hard for me to like this film. Again, I don’t mind liberties taken with history. I also loved Showtimes series THE TUDORS (which I will get to reviewing here in the future), and I know a few fellow Tudorphiles who hate that show because of it’s many liberties with the facts, so I guess everyone has to draw their own lines. But because of that realization, I want to try to be as fair as I can to this film.
My first instinct was to grade this film an F, just because of all the things it got wrong. However, as I said, the cast is great. And the sets and costumes are likewise very well done. Everything seems “real” in the story. Basically, if this hadn’t been a historical drama, if it was filmed as complete fiction, with a make-believe King and the women all had different names, or if it was the same but I didn’t know anything about the Tudors, then I’d probably give the film an A.
It’s well-written, well-acted, and well-filmed. But I do know about these figures, so it’s hard for me to completely put what I know out of my head as I think about this film. Therefor, the best I can do is to give it-