Philippa Gregory's novel The Other Boleyn Girl is finally making its way to cinemas around the world, with enough accompanying glamour and controversy to satisfy any Tudor enthusiast or cultivator of drama. The 2002 novel has been a global success, spawning four published sequels and a more heightened awareness of Tudor culture on both sides of the Atlantic. But now, with a forty million dollar adaptation (directed by Justin Chadwick, who directed the BBC's award-winning 2005 production of Dickens' Bleak House, and written by Peter Morgan, responsible for 2006's one-two punch of The Queen and The Last King of Scotland) with three big time movie stars hitting the screen, it seems that the Boleyn girls are just about everywhere.
With Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winner Natalie Portman (Closer, the Star Wars prequels, The Professional) as Anne Boleyn, four-time Golden Globe nominee Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation, The Prestige, Match Point) as Mary Boleyn, and Eric Bana (of Munich and Hulk fame) as Henry VIII, it seems that the time is
right to tell the story of the Boleyn sisters to a whole new audience, taking the universal themes of romance, rivalry, and betrayal, and intertwining them with the intricacies of the Royal Court in the Sixteenth Century.
"At its heart," Portman says, "it is a family story, a story between sisters… and sibling relationships are complicated." Historically, one can look back throughout literature, myth, and primary documentation to find ample evidence to support her thesis: Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, Blanche and Baby Jane Hudson, Paris and Nicky Hilton… there are countless examples, though the story of Anne and Mary Boleyn, while not hidden away, remained veiled. The infamy resulting from Anne's marriage and execution gave her name recognition amongst people with no familiarity or interest in that period of British history, and Mary, in addition to keeping her life, kept her privacy
in the pages of widely-known history.
But how to build that relationship onscreen, while at the same time expressing the divide that would come to undo it? How can one condense all that history, both personally and nationally, into the intimacies of a chamber drama?
"Scarlett is one of four children," only child Portman notes. "I felt like I had a co-conspirator – she's a wonderful actor and a very playful person. (Screenwriter) Peter Morgan agreed that in every scene there were twenty things going on between the girls – loving, fighting, feeling guilty, rivalry. But above all, closeness." Closeness, possibly. Magnetism, definitely- where from moment to moment lives are drawn together or driven apart by the forces that bind them.
"The Boleyn girls are written as two halves of the same person; Ithink that is always true of sisters of a similar age, even if they don't always want to admit it," Johansson says. "What Mary admires and is repulsed by in Anne are traits that she wishes she had herself. Similarly, Anne comes to realize at the end of the story that she wishes she had some of Mary's traits." Finding that inner balance is a trial for any human being, and as much as that strain can be assuaged by modern technology and psychology, it causes a clenching horror to imagine what that kind of emotional confusion and suffering would have been like in unenlightened times, an angle that Gregory
understands and utilizes in each of her works.
"Anne had a sense of self-respect that was uncommon for a woman of her time. She thought she deserved a status she was not born with, and this ultimately led to her demise," Portman says. "Marriage then was not about love; it was about uniting families to increase their power. Anne accepts this, but the unexpected thing is that Henry is charming, handsome and educated. She finds him an intellectual companion, and her way of attracting his attention is to challenge him." Given the wealth of information available about Anne Boleyn and her own degree in Psychology, Portman had a diverse array of materials available to her during the course of building her character.
But while much has been written about the history of the Tudor Court, "Not much is known about Mary's life," Johansson explains. "You can read different versions of how the affair with Henry came about and nothing is known about her personality. There were no articles written about her, no public interest in her. She was just another of
the king's mistresses. So the best research material I had was Philippa Gregory's imagining of this person, and that was incredibly helpful to me." Johansson found it "interesting to read about life at the Tudor court. As the rest of the world was suffering, fighting religious wars and wars for land, the royal court was its own little world."
"Whichever sister becomes the more successful in their rivalry for the king's affections, the other one becomes the 'other' Boleyn," Portman says. "Anne totally buys into the whole competition, while Mary chooses a way to be happy without life in the court, and she ultimately wins by allowing Anne to have the victory that destroys her. It's about children who are corrupted by a world which pushes them to compete rather than support each other."
Mary, the survivor, is the one who rejects that world. Everyone can understand that jealousy and competition," Portman says. "The bond is very strong; only your siblings can read you so well and know instinctively how you feel." As for rumors of strife on the set, which ran rampant throughout the channels of gossip since filming began in 2006, costar Eric Bana took the time at the 2008 Berlinale (where The Other Boleyn Girl made its world premiere) to dismiss them as rubbish, a sentiment Portman echoes, "People keep asking if the rivalry was real, but it was the opposite because we just liked each other so much."
There was some degree of initial outcry that the three main characters of the book, all major figures in British history, would be played by non-British actors, Natalie Portman (who plays the doomed Anne) and Scarlett Johansson (playing the lesser-known survivor, Mary) being American, and the film's Henry VIII, Eric Bana, being Australian. When
asked about that controversy in London's Daily Mail, Johansson replied "I'll take away the eyebrows and the make-up and you won't notice I'm American." Portman, Bana, and Johansson all use English accents in their performances in the film.
A great deal of criticism was leveled at Gregory for perceived historical inaccuracies in her novel, though it is rare for that not to be the case in works of historical and speculative fiction. The film adaptation's costume designer Sandy Powell, who won the Academy Award in that field for her work on Shakespeare in Love and The Aviator, actually summed up the process of adaptation and its attendant controversies rather well, stating that "You always have to use artistic license; you can never be strictly authentic, and besides, no one knows what authentic is, anyway. I do my research and
then do my own version. I do what is right for the character, or the actor, or the scene, or the film as a whole. We have a story to tell."
Johansson, who became a breakout star in 2003's Lost in Translation opposite Bill Murray, is currently readying her first album (a tribute to avant-cabaret troubadour Tom Waits) and finishing filming on an adaptation of Will Eisner's legendary comic The Spirit for director Frank Miller. She has most recently been linked with her Black Dahlia co-star Josh Hartnett. Natalie Portman has spent her post-Boleyn time
making the film Brothers with Jake Gyllenhaal. Philippa Gregory is preparing to release the sixth novel in her Tudor series later thisyear.
The Other Boleyn Girl opens Friday, February 29, 2008 in theatres everywhere!