The Other Boleyn Girl is everything you could want from a melodrama set in Henry VIII’s royal court — hugely entertaining, wildly speculative, filled with details that are as compelling as they are (probably) inaccurate. The world the film depicts is consistent and plausible regardless of whether it bears any resemblance to one that actually existed in 16th century England, and the characters trapped in it are compelling and recognizable. First-time feature helmer Justin Chadwick and established screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last Kind of Scotland) walk an impressive tightrope between keeping matters pulpy enough that the increasingly downbeat material doesn’t dampen the fun, and grounded enough that its characters’ sad fates nonetheless cut to the quick.
That the film is essentially a soap opera doesn’t mean that it glamorizes the maneuvering, backstabbing and intrigue that, conventional wisdom has it, dominated Henry Tudor’s palace. Indeed, this is as grim a depiction of the royal court as you’re likely to find. Once we leave the bucolic modesty of the Boleyn estate, we’re never permitted to forget the constant threat of social and personal ruin that almost tangibly fills every space in the castle; everyone who comes to court irrevocably latches his or her fate to King Henry (Eric Bana), his mood swings, his wants, and his whims. Chadwick’s camera menacingly peers at the action through doorways and from behind obstructions as if it, too, is afraid to be caught off-guard. It’s easy to understand why Mary Boleyn (Scarlet Johansson) is so distressed at the prospect of coming to London instead of settling down with her new husband in the country — the palace is a profoundly nerve-wracking place.
It’s not left up to her, of course, and a main theme of The Other Boleyn Girl is the misery of having one’s fate, one’s future, in the hands of people who claim to have one’s interests at heart. Mary and her sister Anne (Natalie Portman) barely pass adolescence before their father (Mark Rylance) and uncle (David Morrissey) start plotting to curry the king’s favor with the girls’ beauty. (“Everyone improves the standing of his family through his daughters,” Sir Thomas Boleyn chillingly intones in the film’s first scene.) Armed with the gossip that Henry’s relationship with his wife, Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent), is on the rocks due to Katherine’s failure to produce a male heir, the two scheme for Anne to catch the eye of the King during a royal visit to the Boleyn home. When the King notices the younger, gentler Mary instead, she is forced to abort her plans to remain in the country and accompany Anne to court, where Sir Thomas and his brother-in-law will continue to use them to jockey for position.
Everyone knows, of course, that it was Anne Boleyn, not Mary, who ended up as King Henry’s second wife, and the film’s version of how this came to pass is tragic and moving, a convincing by-product of Mary’s naïvete, Anne’s ambition and the King’s caprice. Mary’s openness and loyalty is warped by the poisonous atmosphere of the court, the ruthlessness and cynicism of her puppet-masters, and her sister’s willingness to assume the worst. Her bewilderment at the manifest injustice of what happens might be the movie’s sharpest emotional hook, and Johansson, in what is surely her finest performance, sells it brilliantly. In the actress’s hands, Mary’s simple good nature can’t be mistaken for stupidity.
The film is smart to keep King Henry mostly on the sidelines, though Bana makes an impression as the imposing, broad-shouldered monarch. It doesn’t linger on his surely-plentiful crises, and one of the most important turning points in Britain’s history — Henry’s decision to break his ties with the Catholic Church and annul his marriage to Katherine in order to marry Anne (who had taken to refusing his advances until he agreed to wed) — happens during a narrative ellipsis. There is just as much potency, the movie realizes, in the stories of the people falling all over themselves (willingly or not) to please the King as in the travails of the King himself.
With a talented, attractive cast and a screenwriter unafraid to pile on the plot twists and dramatic gestures, all of this is a lot of fun. And maybe the most impressive accomplishment of The Other Boleyn Girl is the extent to which it is able to keep a strong and genuine emotional current running under its delicious soap opera exterior. It’s a straightforward, unpretentious joy, and one of the most purely enjoyable films I’ve seen in some time.