The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

Starring: Natalie Portman, Scarlet Johansson, Eric Bana, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jim Sturgess, David Morrissey, Mark Rylance, Benedict Cumberbatch

Directed by: Justin Chadwick

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn and Scarlet Johansson as Mary Boleyn

Anne Boleyn is one of the most fascinating characters in history, and Philippa Gregory's account of her rise and fall, The Other Boleyn Girl, is one of the most gripping and haunting historical novels I've ever read.

Catching the eye of the king was not exactly difficult back in the 1520s, when Henry VIII's queen, Katherine of Aragon, was starting to age and the royal eye to wander, but to keep a king dangling for six whole years, forcing him to break with the Pope and reform the religion of an entire country in order to rid himself of his now unwanted wife and raise another woman up into her place – now that takes guts.

But glittering, witty, intelligent, ruthless and fiercely, single-mindedly ambitious, there have been few women like Anne Boleyn. However history may judge her – manipulative, scheming witch or pliant sexual puppet, marriage wrecker, pawn in a patriarchal power game, scarlet woman, enchantress, whore or battered wife – she succeeded in drawing herself and her power-hungry family up to the highest pinnacle of success, before bringing their ambitious dreams crashing down around their ears, and a sword whistling down across her own elegant neck.

The Other Boleyn Girl shows all these sides to Anne, albeit filtered through the pretty charms of Natalie Portman, who moves another step closer to greatness with this emotional and empathetic performance, but who still isn't quite there yet. It also telescopes her story into a compact couple of hours, making it seem as if Henry disposed of Katherine over the weekend and was sick of Anne by Tuesday. One of the most impressive aspects of Anne's story is how long she managed to cling to power – here she seems as much of a fly-by-night as her cousin Catherine Howard, who would follow in her footsteps to the throne, and the Tower. Still, the fast pace at which the plot unfolds, while making the scenes disjointed at first, keeps you on the edge of your seat as the film progresses, so I guess I shouldn't complain.

The other Boleyn girl of the title is Anne's younger sister Mary, who precedes her sister into Henry's bed but who, by dint of being kind and compliant, fails to hold his butterfly attention for long. A sweetly radiant Scarlet Johansson is perfect in the role – one day she'll get a part which really requires her to act, but here she gets by looking wide-eyed and pretty and wounded, and that's about enough.

Eric Bana is disappointingly underwhelming as Henry VIII

Eric Bana is disappointingly underwhelming (and not at all ginger) as the infamous tyrant Henry VIII: far from the capricious, adorable, lethal golden prince of Gregory's novel, he seems a bit of a moody bore, commanding neither the screen nor his court as he should. Otherwise the casting is sold, particularly Kristin Scott Thomas as the Boleyn girls' protofeminist mother, David Morrissey as their scheming Howard uncle and Across The Universe's Jim Sturgess as their happy-go-lucky brother George. He also meets a sticky end, although wisely, I think, the film dodges some of the more grim and unsavoury aspects of his relationship with Anne. Nobody needs to see a miscarried monster baby burnt on a fire – not even me.

The film also looks pretty damn good, although nothing like as opulent as Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and all in all offers an entertaining, emotional and enthralling slice of fact-fudging historical drama – although not nearly as enthralling as the real, historical Boleyn girl.

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