Deborah Ross

To catch a king

The Other Boleyn Girl /> 12A, Nationwide

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The Other Boleyn Girl

12A, Nationwide

The Other Boleyn Girl, based on the bestselling historical romance by Philippa Gregory, stars Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn and Scarlett Johansson as the other girl, her ‘plainer’ sister Mary, which, considering Scarlett Johansson has just been voted the most beautiful woman in the world, must be a lesson in Hollywood logic in and of itself. Still, do not despair, at least not until you are ten minutes in, at which point, if you are still awake, you will be despairing like crazy while wishing you’d stayed in.

Here’s the deal: we have Anne, the pretty one, and Mary, the plainer one whom we are not meant to clock isn’t plain at all, and they have an ambitious father (Mark Rylance) and an ambitious uncle, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey). Both wish to advance their own power and status by having one of the girls snare the King. Handily, the Duke of Norfolk is also the Duke of Exposition, because heaven forbid anyone should come to this film actually knowing something, or heaven forbid the information should be worked into the drama. You only have to say ‘hello’ to the Duke or ‘pass the salt’ and he’s off: ‘Now, the King is not happy with his Queen, Catherine, because she has yet to give him a male heir, and the last baby was stillborn, and he barely even speaks to her anymore, let alone lies with her, so he’s probably up for seeking solace in a mistress, and if the mistress were Anne or Mary....’ Or words to that effect.

The film opens with the two girls as children, gambolling gigglingly in a golden field — ah, such carefree innocence — then cuts to the Boleyn manor when they are young women and the King is due to visit so, quick, THE KING IS COMING! Tighten corsets! Blow trumpets! Roast pigs! Kick the lyre player into shape! Now, where have I seen these kinds of scenes before? In practically every historical drama of this type? That must be it. There are also horses thundering through forests, the exteriors of gothic castles in rainstorms, and although Henry VIII never throws a chicken bone over his shoulder, Eric Bana plays him as if he’s just about to. Eric Bana is also bizarre casting because, as anyone who knows their history knows, Henry VIII is Keith Michell, and that is that: a fact.

Anyway, although the Duke first pushes Anne at the King, Henry claims Mary instead, bribing her husband to pretend nothing is amiss. Feeling overlooked, Anne fumes, rebels, is exiled to France and then returns as a total, full-on megabitch and prick-tease. Must be something in the water. She was perfectly nice before. Now, though, she is determined to seduce the King away from Mary, which she does, thereby turning England on its head. Actually, if this film is to be believed, Henry’s break from the Catholic Church happened not over three politically divisive years but in two scenes, because he is just so desperate to get into Anne’s knickers. These scenes go something like this:

King: I want to get into your knickers

Anne: You can’t. You have a Queen.

King: I’ve pushed the Queen aside. Now can I get into your knickers?

Anne: Nope.

King. I can’t divorce her. Rome wouldn’t let me.

Anne: Think about it.

King: I could, I suppose, break with Rome.

Worried Noble: But that would mean breaking with the Catholic Church!

Me, had I been there: Well spotted, worried Noble! Top marks!

Next scene:

King: I’ve broken with the Catholic Church.

Anne: Don’t be down about it. You can be head of your own Church, the Church of England!

King: So can I get into your knickers now?

Anne: OK, then.

Fair enough, but as there is absolutely no sexual chemistry, it’s hard enough to imagine he’d even bother to stop at the garage on his way home for a box of Milk Tray, let alone change the course of English history. Although Anne does eventually marry the King, she, too, fails to produce a male heir. She does at least, though, give birth to the baby girl who will one day grow up into Cate Blanchett.

Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth; now there was a royal romp that at least had some magnificence. This, as directed by Justin Chadwick, does not. The characters are not magnificent. Both Anne and her ‘plainer’ sister, Mary, are portrayed as vapid, parading round court rather like the Paris and Nicole of their day, while Portman’s and Johansson’s performances are too modern, too contrived. Morrissey is OK, but, when not being Duke of Exposition, he is pretty much left to lurk in dark corners with a look on his face that is sometimes worried, sometimes menacing or, in extreme circumstances, menacingly worried. My old Ladybird books bring history more to life than this does, and are certainly better written. This is cliché heaped on cliché — ‘It’s one thing to catch a king, another to keep him’ — and hopelessly artificial. ‘Let’s draw a line under this,’ says one of the girls at one point. Yes, I would concur. Let’s.