With Wolf Hall premiering on Wednesday, I decided to flood this blog with Tudor-related posts for the next few days. You can either participate, read along, or ignore it. Whatever you choose, I’ll try to keep things interesting.
The Other Boleyn Girl is revisionist history at its finest, a story that slanders Anne Boleyn in a way her contemporary enemies could have only dreamed of; it is a beautifully written and captivating novel, controversial for its incestuous themes and rewriting of events. It paints Anne in a negative light while reinforcing her sister Mary as the king’s true lover, making her far more central to the story than she actually was. The book and film differ on significant points, most notably the charge of incest and that in the film, Lady Boleyn is turned into the moral voice of reason, whereas in the book she is a willing and eager participant in whoring out her daughters to advance their family’s position at court. I guess the screenwriter felt SOMEONE had to be on the girls’ side, and it ought to be their mother.
As with many things in my life, I am captivated by my own weaknesses when it comes to this film. On moral grounds, I loathe its depiction of these historical figures, but as a cinematic piece I find it quite moving and beautiful to watch. I am a hypocrite who condemns the book on historical grounds but owns the film due to its interesting complexities. I watch it and cringe at its harsh depiction of Katharine of Aragon (she is too stern and cold), its malicious Anne (she has the fire and passion but is diabolical and cruel), and the whitewashing of Mary, who was historically reputed to have had sexual affairs with two different monarchs and other men in-between. Here, she is a virginal saint forced by her family to prostitute herself to the king to win favor to their side, then thwarted in her love for Henry by her conniving sister.
I always find historical productions interesting, because it is entertaining to see what they choose to place emphasis on, while discarding those things that have the most bearing on the plot. Here, they get a lot of the historical facets right, such as the manners of the court (not approaching the monarch first, allowing him to walk on the left of the ladies, etc) and the sable hoods, while ignoring the greater character assassinations going on. One can’t fault the costume designer for that, however; and so my eye turns to the writer with a great deal of suspicion. I almost wonder what he has against Anne Boleyn, because this is the second production he has scripted in which she is raped by Henry – something that has absolutely no historical basis and never happened. Yet, in both this and television’s Henry VIII, he does it to exert dominion over Anne, to satisfy his carnal appetites – but mostly, to punish her for her wickedness. It’s inclusion carries certain undertones of implying she deserves what she gets that I don’t like. Each time, it appalls me on multiple levels. Henry was many things, but he was not a rapist.
(This, mercifully, is not in Gregory’s novel … probably because she did not think of it; so she turns his father into a rapist instead in The White Queen novels.)
Yet, at some point during a viewing of this film, the historian in me steps aside and I become merely a viewer; and whenever that happens, the family dynamics seep into my soul and invest me completely in the storyline. Family is at the heart of this story – both the goods and evils of being a Boleyn. Throughout, the sisters are in competition with one another, loving and hating each other in turn, and going to their beloved brother George for affirmation. They are egged on by their vicious uncle, a Howard, who intends to use them for political gain in court, and their father, who has aspirations for greater things. Their mother, and quite possibly my favorite character in this film, cautions them throughout, moralizes at her husband and Howard for their scheming, and then … devastatingly, loses two of her children to the king’s brutal retaliation.
It rips my heart out, it really does. As does the tearful reconciliation between Mary and Anne in the Tower of London in which they share their final parting, and you know that they will never see one another again; Mary is about to lose “half” of herself, because together they form a whole. Together, they are complete; Anne has the virtues that Mary lacks (ambition, cunning, intelligence, and charm) where Mary has those that Anne lacks (compassion, sensitivity, and common sense). In that moment, it ceases to be butchered history and becomes a tale of two sisters, and the forces that pulled them apart and sent one into her grave. True, here it is by her own hand through her scheming, but I cannot hate Anne as she fumbles her way to her death, shaking. I only have tremendous pity for her.
Tragically, it is this Anne that is most often repeated in film; a villain out to satisfy her own desires, who gets her comeuppance in the end. Gregory’s novel reinforces that perspective, and probably influenced the similar depiction in The Tudors to some degree. Natalie Dormer fought the writer on that series, Michael Hurst, for a more likable, more moral, and less scheming Anne in season two, but by then it was too late; the damage was done and her sudden emphasis on her faith and moral behavior made Anne out to be a hypocrite. (It is hard for a true believer to stomach a heroine who informs her ladies, piously, that they should read the Bible faithfully and take its lessons to heart, when last season she was sexually enticing the king into adultery.)
We will never know the real Anne, and cannot even trust documentation as to her personality, for all of it comes with a bias from those who knew and often hated her. Much of our information about her behavior comes from the obviously biased Spanish ambassador, who rejoiced in her downfall! Only one of her letters survives to give us any indication of her true “voice.” She may indeed have been selfish and scheming, or she may have been a woman of honor who baited the king with the promise of her virtue if he would make her queen, hoping that would be an end to it. Whichever the real Anne was, tragically, she never had the chance to defend herself.