I’m not sure which is more ubiquitous in TV and movies over the last twenty years: the relatively short-lived Tudor Dynasty of Great Britain’s monarchy or Jane Austen, but I know who I’d rather be watching. While Henry VIII and Elizabeth I had their moments of deserved greatness as rulers, viewers of their recent TV productions and films would have a hard time remembering those moments amidst their mercurial, sometimes paranoid tantrums and their fixations with the opposite sex. The films keep getting made, and we keep watching because we can’t quite believe that these two huge personalities really behaved the way they did, or that they lived amidst the better-than-fiction things that took place during their reigns. But lately it seems that the purveyors of all-things-Tudor have decided that history needs some 21st-century tinkering, and the most recent, “The Other Boleyn Girl” is the worst stumble of the bunch.
One glance at the suit of young Henry VIII’s armor and its prominent over-sized codpiece displayed in the White Tower at the Tower of London serves as ample evidence of this monarch’s monumental ego and vanity (it must be viewed in profile to get the full effect). However, Showtime’s “The Tudors” is the only recent rendering that at least hints at Henry being anything but codpiece, when in fact, he was an intellectually brilliant, artistically talented, and athletically gifted Renaissance Man. Still, Henry was often more Ray Winstone (“Henry VIII” 2003) than Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Everything about him was oversized (though the obesity didn’t develop until his late forties). His presence took up the whole room. How could anyone who had the most marginal knowledge of the man imagine him as wallpaper in a film where he was a major character? Yet that is exactly what he is in “The Other Bolelyn Girl.” To be fair to Eric Bana, the characterization throughout this film was done with one-note heavy handedness. Bana had little to work with. He was little more than a contrivance to set up the conflict between Natalie Portman’s Anne and Scarlett Johansson’s Mary.
Most historians agree that Mary Boleyn was the elder of the Boleyn girls, and that Anne grew up largely in the Netherlands and France. She did not meet Henry until after her sister’s affair was over. As far as Henry still pining and respecting Mary after their affair, records again support that after Mary married a second time and was disinherited by her family because of his lack of rank, only through Anne’s intervention out of her own purse did Mary receive any financial relief. Henry turned a deaf ear.
I honestly don’t get why this film was made. Anne Boleyn was a fascinating and complex person. She was ambitious, probably manipulative and under great strain, but she was not only those things. She had things she cared about, and very possibly Henry was one of them. Most portrayals of Anne, from “Anne of a Thousand Days” to the Anne we meet in The Tudors do her that justice. In “The Other Boleyn Girl” Anne was painted entirely in dark bloody reds and slashes of black, despite the consistent dressing in green gowns (as if it wasn’t obvious enough that she was jealous of her sister). Mary was portrayed in shades of light and sun, down to the far too obvious color of her hair. Every short cut that could be made in characterization the filmmakers made. The daughters’ Boleyn and Howard patriarchs were cartoon villains. [SPOILER] The attempted incest scene with her brother George that Anne’s panic after a miscarriage inspires is ludicrous.
Granted I am better read on the Plantagenet Dynasty (a potential gold mine of filmmaking-HINT!!), but even my cursory research and that of most who have ventured to film this period shout at how trumped up the evidence was against Anne and George Boleyn and the other supposed lovers who were beheaded for incest and/or adultery and treason. It was a travesty of justice, not a guilt of intent.
Henry and Anne’s daughter Elizabeth is only slightly better served in Shekhar Kapur’s “Elizabeth” and “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” in terms of being infused with fiction and wishful speculation, but they are at least well-written, powerfully acted (Cate Blanchett is extraordinary), and spectacular to look at. The inherited bigger than life personality of the daughter fills every inch of film. It has a certain truth of spirit, however outrageously anachronistic and inaccurate in the details. Just as with Henry’s over active codpiece, we will always be voyeuristically fascinated with whether Elizabeth I was truly the Virgin Queen, but Helen Mirren’s HBO Elizabeth I is almost certainly closer to the truth about Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, than the youthful consummation scene in “Elizabeth.”
I don’t know. Is it defamation and slander if the people are dead?
If “The Other Boleyn Girl” is any indicator, it’s time to take a break from the Tudors. The soil is barren from overuse and overexposure. Maybe Jane Austen had the right idea. Small, elegant and human-sized relationships wear better with repetition in storytelling, not only because of size, but also because we see ourselves. After a while extremes of human behavior and steal-all-the-air drama lose their punch. We get overloaded and numbed. They drain rather than nourish. No portrayal of Henry VIII or Elizabeth I should ever be anything but big, and hence, it bears the seeds of it’s own wearing thin with the retelling.
If another Tudor story needs to be told, Hollywood should look to the story of how a Welsh family found its way to the throne in the first place. (Henry VII was the son of Edmund Tudor, whose parents were the Welsh Owen Tudor and Henry V’s French consort Catherine of Valois. Henry VII’s mother was Margaret, daughter of the legally set aside from succession Beauforts (the after the fact legitimized offspring of Edward III). That may be the craziest Tudor soap opera of all. I wonder how Jane would tell it.