boleynIn real life, Anne Boleyn was a brave, intelligent woman who had the audacity to speak her mind, and the misfortune to live at a time when the full extent of her gifts had to be used for political intrigues to boost her family’s (and her own) prestige and power. You know, instead of running the country herself, which she would have probably done a good job of, despite her huge unpopularity (stemming in great part from the rampant antifeminism of the time), she had to settle for manipulating a fickle, pampered king. (Mom?)

The movie, The Other Boleyn Girl, presents Anne as a shrewd and ruthless woman with limitless ambition, but without focusing on the full range of her impact and intelligence. (Sexual power games do play better on the big screen than religious reform.) Her sister, the forgotten-to-history Mary Boleyn, here (as in the Philippa Gregory book, which I didn’t love) is presented as more a woman of the times: kinder and simpler and perfectly happy to abide by the king’s whims. Through their alternating rising and falling fortunes, Anne’s betrayals of Mary and Mary’s devotion to Anne, a picture of Tudor life in Henry VIII’s court emerges.

It’s a fascinating time, one that changed history forever (thanks, in great part, to the machinations of Anne, born out of a lifelong interest in religious reform acquired in the French court and also the universal-in-the-Tudor-world desire for power), but the movie doesn’t quite have the enormous emotional impact it could have, based on the subject matter. Hell, Anne is destroyed in the end by the corrupt system she rose to rule: betrayed by her family, her husband and her society, she’s beheaded in front of a crowd that includes Mary. This should be the stuff of epic drama. Instead, it’s sad, but in a “Mom, do you have a Kleenex? After this, let’s go to Chick-Fil-A” type way.

Playing the sisters, Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson are both great, and I think the film will go a long way in adding luster to their careers. Visually, they’re a great match: Portman’s dark intelligence vs. Johansson’s more dreamy-eyed blonde, and the script gives them some excellent back-and-forths. Their scenes together are the best in the film.

That said, I think that Natalie Portman had an impossible task, and although I loved her in the movie, the challenge of truly channeling a maligned, misunderstood historical figure is a little bit too much. A great deal of that is probably the movie’s attempts to stay accessible to all audiences–with more of a glossy surface approach, there’s not many opportunities for her to disappear into the character. Although you feel for her (especially during a horrible rape scene, her trial and her final scene), it’s hard to forget that you’re watching Natalie Portman.

Scarlett Johansson fares better, probably because of how, lost to history, Mary Boleyn is pretty much a fictional construct. Quiet and emotionally complex, she internalizes everything around her instead of firing off sharp bon mots like Anne, and this mystery makes all the difference. Johansson’s is the performance of the film, and my respect for her (one of my favorite actresses) increased tenfold after seeing it. As we left the theater, my friend and I were discussing how she almost seemed to physically look different than she normally does–she truly becomes a living, breathing character different from her 21st century self.

Eric Bana’s hot, yes, and looks good shirtless, boffing ScarJo and wearing the shoulder-padded linebacker-y clothes, but this isn’t his story. Kristin Scott Thomas is fantastic as the strong-minded mother of the Boleyn girls, who comments (a little anachronistically, but thankfully) on the action from a feminist viewpoint. And whoever played Katherine of Aragaon: could that Penelope Cruz-accented-broad ever monologue! (It’s all she speaks in.) And the costumes are amazing–I wish women today wore the same headbands/crowns/tiaras that they do in the flick. I wish I wore them!

While I really enjoyed the movie, it suffered from the same problem so many other historical epics do: not trusting the real story to be interesting enough on its own terms. Instead of showing the real Anne, an intensely polarizing figure of her time who nonetheless exercised amazing power in England and abroad, it presents us a simpler version: the rise and fall of a scheming vixen. 

 Tudor England was definitely a difficult place to be a strong woman, and I applaud the woman-positive slant the movie takes. There’s a fire in Mary’s eyes after Anne dies, and she grabs her baby and marches towards the camera, hellbent on escaping the court, and it ends on a lovely, forward-looking note that vindicates Anne. After showing the fates of several of the main characters, it ends with a shot of children playing in a field and a sentence like this: “Henry did have an heir, who would rule for 45 years: the strong, red-haired daughter Anne gave him: Elizabeth.” Nice.

Anne herself is a more than worthy mother to her more-famous daughter. She lived in times that were harsh to all women, especially ones who attempted to affect change, but one of the most amazing things about Anne is that she did what few have truly done–successfully pulled off a revolution.

So, while I liked the movie a lot, the other “Other Bolyen Girl” is the one who’s the most interesting: the real-life Anne Boleyn.