Sometimes showing historical events and people as the young hip culture of their time works, as it did in A Knight’s Tale. That worked because clever direction, credible acting and a great lively modern film score got the audience in Olympic mode, cheering on their sporting heroes.
Other times it just doesn’t work. This movie, based on a dodgy novel by Philippa Gregory, who styles herself as an historical novelist, but seems to prefer rewriting historical facts to suit her plots, is perfect film fodder for the clueless generation. Are you ready for Tudor England 90210? It goes like this:
OK, there was, like, these two sisters, you know? And one was just so lush, with blonde hair and blue eyes. Her name was Mary and she was really sweet and shy and innocent – kinda like Miley before Hannah Montana.
The other was called Anne, and she wasn’t as cute but she had a brain, and she was more of a girl power type. Her uncle and her Dad wanted her to get it on with the King of England, which wasn’t so bad because it was Eric Bana, but it was still like child abuse. But when the King turned up with his entourage, it was Mary he got the hots for – and that was fair, because she was the hot one.
Basically, Anne and Mary Boleyn are rivals for the lust of King Henry VIII, while their male relations scheme in the background and their mother wrings her hands in shame. Whatever.
The reason it sounds like some trashy daytime soap is because it is so wildly historically inaccurate. These are certainly not the people who plotted the length and breadth of England to reform the church and help the king outwit his own laws. These are people who only lack blackberries, and not the kind you pick off bramble bushes.
It would have been much more fun if they’d stuck to the truth. Mary was no shy violet, she lost her innocence at the French court long before the events of this movie took place and showed no signs of ever regretting it. She had a penchant for Kings, for not only was she the mistress of Henry VIII but also of the King of France. It would have amused Henry to dally with his style rival’s leftovers, but he would never have considered marrying her. Yet when we are introduced to Mary Boleyn in this movie, she is a country mouse who has never left her English home or set eyes on a naked man.
It is Anne who is presented as more worldly wise and the movie wants us to believe she is the sexually savvy one. Actually it seems pretty clear that Anne was not impressed with her sister’s behavior and, when it came her turn to romance the throne, held out until she got that bling.
Scarlett Johansson plays Mary with promenade deck thrusting out and blue eyes blinking pathetically. Mostly she looks like a blonde stunned mullet. Natalie Portman plays Anne – well, actually she doesn’t bother to act at all, she just stalks around in her tight bodices and talks a lot.
As the source of all this feminine frisson, Eric Bana isn’t half bad as Henry VIII. He shows a rarely human side of the wife killer, and looks great when he gets those puffy sleeves off. But he is poorly served by the script. Mostly he is just a floating log, pushed hither and yon by hormonal tides and palace plotting, overburdened with shoulder pads, hormones and a poor script. In fact, according to this movie, if Anne hadn’t sat in on every royal committee and made a fuss he would never have thought of reforming the Church or divorcing his wife Katherine or any of that radical stuff.
The script is not merely inappropriate to the time and characters, it is banal beyond belief. The actors throw around lines like “How dare you!” and “I have torn this country apart for you!” with all the passion and conviction these words inspire. God help us, Anne even says, “You are my only hope!” to her brother George when trying to seduce him into fathering a son for Henry – which, considering it’s Natalie Portman of Star Wars fame, is just too much for anyone to cope with, and inspires nervous giggles.
Then there’s the look of the thing. Cate Blanchett looked absolutely fabulous in her gorgeous gowns in Elizabeth, but perhaps that was just Cate Blanchett. Director Justin Chadwick tries too hard for the Vermeer look here, with artfully placed beams of grey English sunlight falling though medieval windows, but only succeeds in making the whole movie look dark and gloomy, and the people so unattractive in dull ‘Tudor’ colors that you wonder why the English didn’t just die out at that point through lack of interest in each other.
A useful historical lesson it is not. If you know anyone who is studying the Tudor period for whatever reason, steer them away from this film. It does, however, serve as a useful lesson in film making. It really doesn’t matter if you have normally personable and talented stars, lots of money and genuine historical sets, if your source material comes from a Mills and Boon style novel by an author who either ignored the facts or didn’t bother to do research, don’t think a bit of hip talk will cover it up.