Elizabethan London

Elizabethan London
Tyburn was an infamous execution spot west of London, used since medieval times. The Tyburn "tree" - a unique, multi-person gallows - erected in 1571 became a popular public spectacle, drawing crowds of thousands.Tyburn Tree blog is less blood-thirsty but hopefully topical, interesting and informative, if slightly bent to my personal topics of interest - books, writing, history, technology, with a smattering of politics and dash of pop culture, science and the downright strange. So "take a ride to Tyburn" and see what happens...

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Elizabethans at the Movies, Part 4

Here’s Part 4 of my Elizabethans at the Movies series, taking a quick look at the most recent crop of modern Elizabethan-era films.

Apologies for not getting this posted earlier in the week but the holiday season and life intervened.  In any case, here is Part 4, where we look at The Other Boleyn Girl:

The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

Director: Justin Chadwick

Stars: Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana

The Other Boleyn Girl is a much romanticized, soap operatic account of the events surrounding Henry VIII’s tempestuous relationship with Anne Boleyn, the subsequent divorce with Catherine of Aragon and Anne’s eventual rise to marriage and the position of Queen, followed by her abrupt fall, trial and execution.

The basic story centres around the ambitious Boleyn family – the uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, and Thomas Boleyn (the father) plot to introduce Henry VIII (Eric Bana, in a not particularly believable portrayal) to Boleyn’s daughter Mary (played by Scarlet Johansson) as a potential mistress (a most disquieting effort to pimp out his daughters…). Boleyn hopes to have position, titles and revenue as a reward for Henry’s possibly being able to sire a son and heir on his daughter. Henry duly becomes infatuated with Mary and becomes involved. Anne Boleyn (played by Natalie Portman) meanwhile secretly marries a nobleman, a marriage that Anne, fearing the King’s displeasure, rats out to her father and results in Anne being exiled to France and the marriage annulled. When Mary becomes pregnant, the Boleyn’s fear the King will lose interest, so they bring Anne back to keep the King’s attentions. Mary gives birth to a son but, alas, he’s a bastard, and so Mary and her new child are exiled to the country, while Anne replaces her sister as Henry’s new favorite. Anne pressures Henry to break with the Church and divorce Catherine, eventually he agrees, declares himself head of the church, has the marriage annulled and marries Anne Boleyn, who is now…wait for the drumroll…Queen of England. Anne gives birth to a daughter (Elizabeth, eventually to become Cate Blanchett..er…uhm…Queen Elizabeth) but fails to deliver to Henry the long-sought son and heir, for which he sundered the religious equanimity of his kingdom.

Fearing the King’s wrath over the miscarriage of his supposed son, Anne plots to father a child with her brother (spoiler: they don’t). The plot is reported, the two arrested for treason, incest and adultery. Her brother George loses his head, followed swiftly by Anne after a trial. Mary attempts to intercede but fails and is warned to no longer appear at Court. Henry VIII goes on to marry his next wife (Jane Seymour), Mary returns to her country exile, helping to raise Elizabeth, and Anne gets to fatally meet the Swordsman of Calais…

The Other Boleyn Girl is, as with so many of the Tudor/Elizabethan period pieces, gorgeous to watch. Sumptuous costumes, terrific historical locations and tolerable acting make what is a fairly pedestrian and overly melodramatic script work as a decent, if not particularly memorable film. There is nothing terrible in this movie, but nothing particularly memorable either. Both Portman and Johansson give strong performances as the Boleyn ladies but they are somewhat undone by the overall structure and pace of the movie. There seems to be little urgency around their actions (at least until Portman suddenly begins suggesting incest to her brother as a solution to their problems – a moment that feels highly forced and bluntly, illogical).

Historically there are a number of issues with this film, aside from the usual time-compression and conflation that almost all Hollywood historical dramas are guilty of when brought to the screen. The film understates Mary Boleyn’s role as a mistress, deliberately creating an air of innocence around a woman who historically had purportedly been the previous mistress of the King of France (who also, in the classy manner of so much royalty, described her as “a hackney” because she was fun to ride). The dual portrait of the Boleyn sisters as either naive innocent vs. scheming vixen ends up being both shallow and historically inaccurate.

As an added bonus, the film doesn’t do Henry VIII much justice either. The King is generally treated as a smoldering sex obsessive, slipping from one fruitless, frustrated dalliance to the next, trying in vain to beget an heir. Henry VIII was a complex character in his own right – vain, very much a man who believed in his own eminence and God-given divine right to rule but clever, manipulative and often mercurial.  The Henry VIII in The Other Boleyn Girl is a one-dimensional shade of the real character.

Overall The Other Boleyn Girl is a decent, if uninspired film, with good acting, nice sets and an overly melodramatic plot line that frankly, doesn’t treat the material with the respect it probably deserves. If you are looking for a more interesting take on the era, check out the miniseries The Tudors, which offers a longer and more nuanced look at the characters (particularly Anne Boleyn, archly acted by Natalie Dormer) and the era, although it also suffers from significant historical accuracy.

Ranking: B- / C+

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