The Other Boleyn Girl: Sprinting Through Years of British History in Just 115 Minutes

Warm candlelight falls across a woman’s back as a man’s hand caresses her, their profiles coming together in an achingly passionate kiss. Hold on now, don’t get too excited–you won’t see much more than this in The Other Boleyn Girl, which opened in theaters last Friday. In fact, there’s surprisingly little sex in this movie that is really about the politics of sex in 16th century England. It’s a story that, if you know your British history, you should have heard before: Henry the VIII (Eric Bana) hasn’t been given a male heir by his wife, Queen Catherine, so, under the influence of the beguiling Anne Boleyn, he throws the laws and religion of his country out the window, gives Catherine the boot, and slaps a crown on Anne Boleyn to the dismay of most of the kingdom.

In The Other Boleyn Girl, (inspired by Phillipa Gregory’s novel of the same name) however, there’s a twist: Anne’s younger sister, Mary Boleyn, (Scarlett Johansson) enchants the king first. This is a story of sibling rivalry played for the highest stakes imaginable. And where Mary only beds the king, Anne is intent on marrying him.

The movie has been almost universally disparaged by critics, and it’s true, it has some major problems. Screenwriter Peter Morgan has chosen to bypass all that “unnecessary” character development, rushing headlong into the good stuff: trials, accusations, and executions. We’re never given a chance to feel for the characters. Consequently, by the time we reach the second half of the film, it’s hard to care if they chop off Anne’s head or not, and Mary seems completely obsolete.

But The Other Boleyn Girl does everything a costume drama should do. It delights the eye with beautiful lighting, sumptuous costumes, and gorgeous faces. And there are moments of emotion, here and there, that have a ring of truth to them: the exhaustion that consumes Anne as she struggles to please the king, her devastation as she hears her guilty verdict read out again and again, and the fear that makes her fingers tremble as she removes her hood before her execution.

So, is it the best movie you’ll ever see? No, but for eight bucks, it’s not a bad way to spend 115 minutes.

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