The latest cinematic offering of royal drama is ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’, which takes a different angle on that most famous period of English royal history – the reign of King Henry VIII – by focusing on the life of Mary Boleyn, sister of the ill-fated Anne Boleyn. A film set against such a well known and fantastically dramatic period should certainly pack a cinematic punch; leading lady Scarlett Johansson actually had some trepidation that the role of Mary Boleyn was a touch melodramatic, “a bit scary”. The cast also includes Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn and Eric Bana as Henry VIII. There is also a role for English actress Kristin Scott Thomas as Elizabeth Boleyn (Lady Elizabeth Howard), Mary and Anne’s mother. As ever there have been a few who scoffed at Americans taking the lead roles in a film about English history; a persistent gripe that oddly enough only seems to be aimed at Hollywood films crossing the accent divide. Perhaps it’s the thought of ‘Ye Olde England’ being overrun by brash ‘Yanks’ that frightens a few purists! The story is certainly worthy of the Hollywood treatment – a rollercoaster court drama of sex, love and murder. It begins in 1521 when Mary’s cousin, the Duke of Buckingham, is executed on Henry VIII’s orders. His crime was voicing the opinion that Henry was incapable of producing a healthy male heir.
A year later, Mary’s older sister, Anne, returns to England from the French Court where she has lived as a lady-in-waiting. Both Boleyn girls are portrayed as great beauties, and Mary, a mere thirteen years old, is already married to the courtier, Sir William Carey. However, the 31-year-old English monarch takes a fancy to her and Mary yields and becomes Henry’s mistress. Mary falls pregnant with the king’s bastard and she gives birth to two children – Catherine and Henry. During her sister’s pregnancy, Anne seduces Henry who takes to romancing Anne by day and sleeping with Mary by night. Mary is heartbroken as she has by now fallen in love with him. By 1527 the mercurial Henry has made up his mind to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne. Mary is thereby relegated to the background and becomes ‘the other Boleyn girl’. She is reduced to being Anne’s lady-in-waiting as her sister sets out usurping her life, adopting Mary’s son and showing no sympathy when Mary’s husband dies of ‘sweating sickness’ (a mysterious epidemic of the 15th and 16th centuries).
In 1532 Mary finds love again with a servant, William Stafford, whom she secretly marries. Proof that she has found true love, as marrying a commoner and becoming pregnant by him leads to her banishment from the court. However, it is Anne who suffers most in the coming years. After giving birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1533 she suffered two miscarriages. In 1536 she miscarries again and the child is monstrously deformed. The climax of the story sees Anne arrested, along with her brother George, who falls foul of the King for his homosexual affair with the courtier Sir Francis Weston. Both men are executed as are Anne’s alleged lovers. Mary is uncertain what to do, but saves her own life by not becoming involved with the scandal. The novel ends with Anne’s execution while Mary lives out her life peacefully, with her husband. Although the author Philippa Gregory has an academic background – a doctorate in 18th century literature and a great deal of historical research has gone into the novel – ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ is historically based drama not history, and this has led to some criticism. For example: that there is no evidence that George Boleyn was homosexual, rather that he was a womaniser; and the depiction of Anne is harsher than the historical record suggests. Artistic licence of course justifies the author’s muse and the literary value of the novel and its dramatic power are not in dispute.
As for the Hollywood adaptation, it certainly comes with a good pedigree. Director Justin Chadwick has had a varied career as an actor and director in television and cinema. His direction of the drama serial ‘Bleak House’ (2005) earned him a BAFTA TV Award and an Emmy nomination, which led onto the offer to film ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’. The screenplay is by Peter Morgan, best known for ‘The Deal’ a television drama about the power-sharing deal between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown; and most recently for ‘The Queen’, starring Helen Mirren, which was an international success both commercially and critically. Morgan’s first play ‘Frost/Nixon’ dramatised the series of televised interviews that the disgraced former president gave to Frost in 1977 and was also highly praised. Costume design is by Sandy Powell, who won academy awards for her work on ‘Shakespeare in Love’ (1998) and ‘The Aviator’ (2004). (Extract from Royalty Magazine Vol. 20/11)