08 March 2008

There Is No Friend Like a Sister

I was pretty sure I would dislike The Other Boleyn Girl, even though it involves the Tudors. I read the Philippa Gregory book on which the film is based years ago and quite enjoyed it, as far as I can remember, but Gregory's flowing, if not always brilliant, prose paints a vivid picture of that troublesome period in history and, indeed, of the other Boleyn girl, namely Anne's older sister Mary (Mary is younger in the film, which allows to her to be married off to any old country gentleman, whereas first-born Anne becomes the true apple of her father's plotting eye).

If I get started on the historical inaccuracies, I'll never stop, but suffice to say that as is standard in Hollywood, the timeline is completely screwed and the importance of actual historical events is raised or clouded depending on the context in which the film places them. Effectively, the plot goes as follows. Thomas Boleyn and his wife Elizabeth have a nice estate in the country and three children, Anne, Mary and George. Thomas did rather well when he married into the Howard family - the Dukes of Norfolk and co. - but is a rather weak, spineless character, governed by his own greed and social-climbing ambition, as well as his scheming brother-in-law, Norfolk.

Norfolk learns that King Henry is getting fed up with Catherine of Aragon's inability to provide a son-and-heir so he arranges for Henry to come out to the Boleyn estate in Kent. Mary has just been married off to William Carey, a nice country gentleman, and because she is The Nice Sister, she is quite happy about this and is looking forward to a nice, quiet life with her loving husband. Boleyn and Norfolk decide that the king needs a mistress and that Anne would be the best person for the job - mainly because their favour with the king will rise and rise. The king does indeed seem rather taken with Anne and they have a little flirtatious banter until tragedy strikes while on the hunt one day - Anne was showing off while chasing a stag and the king followed her into a dangerous ravine and fell off his horse and was badly hurt. Bye bye, Anne. Thinking quickly, Boleyn and Norfolk send Mary to go to tend to Henry's wounds and his wounded ego and he falls for her. Anne is furious but not as furious as her father and uncle who think she ruined Christmas for them all by her stupid hunting antics.

Mary is then summoned to court so she can go and be Henry's mistress; she would rather stay on her farm with her husband and expects the latter to stick up for her and for their marriage, but he is offered a position in the prestigious privy council, which apparently makes up for being cuckolded by the king. Meanwhile, Anne has gone and married Percy, another noble dude, in secret, which is big oh-noes as Percy would have needed the king's permission to marry Anne. Anne couldn't resist, though, not least because Percy was betrothed to another woman, and she tells her brother and sister, in delight. Mary worries, though, about the consequences for Anne and tells daddy and Uncky Norfolk, who are furious and send Anne to France for a few months (in reality, Boleyn and both daughters were in the French court for several years); oh noes! Not France! Anne is extremely angry with her sister for tattling and storms grudgingly off to France.

Before long, Mary's hubby is banished to the country so she is free to be with the king and soon, she gets in a family way. The king is pretty pleased about this but can't see her for several months as she "lies in," locked in a dark chamber with only her ladies. Luckily, when the baby is born it is a boy, much to Norfolk and Boleyn's delight; however, in the meantime, Anne has returned to France and is playing the perfect little teasing, coquette, and Henry loves it. So much so that just as Mary is popping out Henry's bastard, Henry tells Anne he wants to have her; Anne, cunningly, says she won't even consider it unless he promises never to "lie with" Catherine again or to talk to Mary again. Henry is torn but - bewitched - agrees and won't even look at the heart-broken Mary or their child. Uncle and Daddy aren't pleased with Anne until she proves every bit the ambitious Howard as she reveals her own plans for Henry, which far exceed even Norfolk's greatest schemes.

The rest of the film is history: Anne wins Henry, Henry gets bored and/or anxious for son, Henry fancies Jane Seymour, Henry decides to get rid of Anne, Anne is executed. In fact, the title of the film is somewhat of a misnomer because it is just as much about Anne as about Mary. Anne constantly schemes and plots and betrays her sister in her efforts to get what she wants, whereas Mary is meek and mild and a bit wet. She is devastated when Henry dumps her in favour of her sister - she genuinely loved him, she says. However, throughout the film, the one thing that never changes is Henry's trust in Mary - he never could quite trust Anne, whereas if he wanted the truth, he knew he could go to Mary to find out. Of course, she puts herself on the line big time by lying about Anne's betrothal to Percy to save her sister, even though it kills her and even though she knows her lie will allow her sister to marry the king. With a dad like Thomas Boleyn and an uncle like Norfolk, the idea of family loyalty had probably been bashed into her head since she was a child, and yet it was totally misplaced given that her family was more than willing to abandon her to suit their needs. On the bright side, she alone gets a happy ending in this tale of the fatal sisters.

Ultimately, The Other Boleyn Girl is a tale of the importance of family loyalty during a time in which one's position and inheritance were far from secure, as well as the extents to which people would go to protect their family and further its interests. The movie portrays the Boleyns as a slightly odd family whereby the males (Thomas and George) are weak and wussy, whereas the females (Anne and her mother Elizabeth) are the ones with the real power. Oddly, given that having a male heir was of the prime importance in the 16th century, Boleyn seems far more concerned about his daughters' marriages than his son's.

George is eventually forced to marry the horrible, selfish, jealous and scheming Jane Parker who ultimately brings about his downfall. Jane is jealous that he is always off with his sisters and not with her, so of course when she sees Anne (desperate to have a son to stop Henry discarding her) and George clearly about to engage in relations not generally deemed appropriate for a brother and sister, her jealousy prevents her from keeping it to herself. In the film, she tells Norfolk (for whom she is a loyal pawn) and then Henry himself; in reality, her wifely crime was to fail to deny the (fabricated) claims about Anne and George during their trials, which ultimately sent her husband to the Tower. In fact, there definitely wasn't enough evidence for a conviction and had George not implied that Anne's lack of male heir was due to Henry's not being manly enough, he probably wouldn't have been executed. Jane gets her own, though; when another Howard queen is on the throne (Katherine Howard), Jane is one of her ladies in waiting and she ends up giving her cousin some very bad advice that ultimately led to both of them being executed. In Jane's case, she seems to have lost her mind shortly before she lost her head, and was rambling away to herself all the way to the block, convinced she would be pardoned.

Of course, this being history (well, sort of) the ending is always clear and you can never forget it, even when Henry is being his most loving with Mary and most lustful with Anne (the film skips over much of the years before the divorce where Anne and Henry were constant companions, writing daily to each other and reading of the joys of the protestant faith). Nonetheless, the ending was quite sad, given that Mary felt let down by Henry at the last minute and Anne felt let down by Mary and then there's poor old George, whose only crime was to want to save his sister's life (even if his moral centres eventually got the better of him).

Anne isn't played in a very sympathetic light here; even though she clearly was an instrument of her conniving uncle and father, she is clearly shown to have inherited this ruthless ambitious drive and is more than happy to betray her sister to achieve her own goals (which happen to be in line with her family's goals, most of the time). Mary, docile and drippy as she is often shown to be, is at least a nice girl with a good heart, who just wants the simple, country life with a man she loves. So, is that the moral? Be nice and sweet and loyal and don't be too ruthless? Don't be the king's mistress? Don't even think about shagging your brother? Don't trust your uncle if he's the Duke of Norfolk? Don't be a woman in the 16th century if you expect to be able to do what you want and to get what you want? It's unclear... The film was still quite an enjoyable romp, anyway, zillion historical inaccuracies aside.

As with Elizabeth I (II), the costumes were gorgeous - beautiful gowns in rich red, green and blue hues. Anne's bling, gold B on a string of pearls could have been better though; it looked as though it came from Claire's Accessories or somewhere so I guess Tiffany hadn't yet opened its London store in 1530 so only tacky jewellery was available.

The actresses playing the sisters were gorgeous too; Natalie Portman as the cool, dark-haired, scheming Anne and Scarlett Johannson as the pale, blonde, "nice" va-va-voom Mary. Incidentally, some readings of Mary Boleyn actually seem to suggest that she was a dirty little harlot who was shagging both the King of France and the King of England within weeks of each other and that she was the bold, outgoing one, whereas Anne was quieter and more political. Obviously, the press loves the opportunity to point out just how different Portman and Johansson look, even though they're both gorgeous! What are the odds of that? As for the rest, there was plenty of symbolic imagery - the repeated shots of chickens being chopped up for dinner just before that fateful hunting trip, the fires flaring up when trouble is brewing, fluffy, white clouds racing over a clear blue sky when times are a-changin'... Even so, it was still a very pretty film. Good score too, and even the British accents weren't too shoddy.

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