The other Henry VIII film

King Henry VIII is apparently the second-most frequently portrayed monarch in cinema (after his daughter, Elizabeth I). And he’s back once more in The Other Boleyn Girl, based on the bestselling historical novel by Philippa Gregory and turned into a miniseries by the BBC in 2003. It is the story of Henry’s affairs with both Boleyn sisters, Mary and Anne, in the 1520s and 1530s.
He ultimately married Anne, then tired of her and had her beheaded. I’m sorry if that gives away the ending, but it is in the historical record.

Henry is one of the most colourful characters in British history, hence the many attempts to put him on film. There is all that drama with the six wives and the schism with the Catholic Church, on top of his legendary appetites. He was undoubtedly intelligent, well read and thoughtful (he wrote a riposte to Luther) almost as much as he was consumed by his romantic affairs and his busy schedule of hunting and carousing. He was the very epitome of the 16th-century absolute monarch and, even by the standards of the time, a bit of a proto-Stalin.

He has been played by a lot of different people—Charles Laughton, James Robertson Justice, Robert Shaw, Richard Burton and Charlton Heston on film and, in the recent TV series, Ray Winstone and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. The 1969 Burton outing, Anne of the Thousand Days, is the same basic story as that of The Other Boleyn Girl, though the new film is seen largely from the perspective of the Boleyns.

It also lacks Henry’s minister, Thomas Cromwell, telling him: “But, your majesty, we’ve used the incest excuse before — ” (The new film does, though, give us an incest angle on the accusations against Anne. Historically this charge was probably trumped up; the film simply ignores the other charges against her.)

Now, in The Other Boleyn Girl, Henry VIII is impersonated by Eric Bana, who is closer than either Burton or Rhys Meyers to capturing the large physical presence. But he doesn’t seem to have much personality to project. Bana’s Henry seems contemplative rather than brooding; he’s passionate and gets angry a few times, but he’s hardly the larger-than-life megalomaniac whose desires and actions should drive the plot.

But then Bana has doubtless been cast because this is a Hollywoodised take on the tale (despite its British director and screenwriter; the latter, Peter Morgan, who wrote The Queen, also did the BBC’s Henry VIII, so maybe he was tired of trying to get into Henry’s head). Personally, I can’t see the charisma or the sex appeal that gets the Australian Bana tagged as a hunk with depth. He says sensitive new-man things to Mary (in the 16th century!), and gets his shirt off to play a soft-focus love scene, but this Henry VIII is largely a cipher. I think Brendon Gleeson would be needed to get Henry right in all his bulk and complexity, with that touch of psychosis, but I suppose for purposes of this project Gleeson wouldn’t be glamorous enough.

The same logic prevails when it comes to the female leads, both prettier than their historical originals. Scarlett Johansson plays Mary, the older sister, who first had an affair with the king (and bore him a son, according to a rumour this film takes seriously, though not seriously enough to explore the likely political ramifications). Natalie Portman is Anne, who got to the throne itself, thus helping to precipitate the religious split that changed European history. The women here are cast according to a classic Hollywood characterological opposition: blond Johansson is the nicer sister, while brunette Portman is the scheming, ambitious Anne.

This gives some sense of how the film works. It looks great, being expertly designed and shot, often very darkly; this is a world of bonnets and bodices, but we get little of the bright pageantry that often takes up way too much acreage in such movies. This is, after all, a rather dark tale. But, as hinted by the hair-colour trope, it’s relatively superficial. The actors get the external details working, but there’s not much inner life or solidity. Only Kristin Scott-Thomas, as the Boleyn girls’ mother, seems to fully inhabit her role, to give it personhood: the moment she appears on screen, you sense a resonant human presence that is otherwise absent.

The Other Boleyn Girl also can’t deal with historical complexity except in a rather shallow manner or by obfuscation. Despite the big religious issues at stake—and they really were huge in that time—we get little sense of them. It would be like a film about George W Bush that dispensed with the invasion of Iraq in a sentence. This was the very air these people breathed! The story’s need to provide neat contrasts between Mary and Anne (more virtuous versus less virtuous) also ignores the fact that King François I of France, at whose court the Boleyn sisters stayed for some time, described Mary as the most promiscuous lady there.

Anyway, let’s not go further into such distortions. Let’s just say that The Other Boleyn Girl could have done a lot with what really happened historically but instead has plumped for glamour and soap opera. It is good-looking, fairly engrossing and reasonably entertaining, but its characters feel flat. It’s a historical movie for people who aren’t very interested in history.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal