Most people who learned world history can recall the story of England's King Henry VIII. Henry is probably one of the most famous kings that Britain has ever had. The tales of his various wives, six in total, and their various deaths, are equally as famous.
This film focuses on one of the six, specifically Henry's second wife, Anne Boleyn, as well as the rivalry that Anne takes against her sister, Mary, for Henry's affection and ultimately his child.
It may sound cliché, but this film really brings history to life. Based on the book by Philippa Gregory, adapted by Oscar-nominee Peter Morgan (The Queen and Last King of Scotland), Emmy-nominated director Justin Chadwick, in his first feature film, achieves an interpretation that makes British history sexy and steamy.
Natalie Portman stars as Anne Boleyn, the younger, more seductive, and certainly more scheming of the two Boleyn sisters. Scarlet Johansson co-stars as Mary Boleyn, the fairer and more modest of the two girls.
Both women are in top form and deliver more than effective performances, possibly due to the fact that both are very comfortable in these Merchant Ivory-like costume dramas. Johansson was Oscar-nominated for Girl With the Pearl Earring (2003). Portman obviously has had her fittings in the wildly popular Star Wars prequels, which even though they take place in the future, look and feel like period pieces.
It's funny, but Portman's role in the Star Wars prequels was interesting because she played the mother to an important character that people are more familiar. Here, again, she's playing the mother to another important character that people in the film and TV world are certainly more familiar. In this case, it's not Luke Skywalker, but instead Elizabeth I.
Shakespeare wrote a whole play on Henry the VIII, which concluded with the christening of Henry's daughter, Elizabeth I. Recently, a feature film about Elizabeth I's reign as queen starring Cate Blanchett got nominated for a few Oscars. Prior to that, Helen Mirren starred in a Emmy-winning TV movie by HBO about Elizabeth's elderly years.
This film, like Shakespeare's original play, is more or less a prequel to all those recent Elizabeth movies. It exists to explore the steamy, sexual scandal that led to Elizabeth's birth and eventual ascendancy to the throne to become one of England's most powerful rulers.
Whatever power she had, whatever fire in her belly she possessed, we get a glimpse of it here in Portman's powerful and certainly Oscar-worthy performance. Portman's Anne Boleyn is a believer of marrying for love, but her father and uncle enlighten her to the benefits that would result from producing a male child for the king.
It becomes widely known that Henry's current wife, Queen Katherine, can't produce a male heir. In order to maintain the steady, political relationships and the royal power within his lineage, Henry needs to have an affair. Anne's father and uncle arrange for Henry to come to their farm where Anne can have the opportunity to beguile and seduce the very attractive king.
Eric Bana (Hulk and Munich) plays King Henry VIII. People may be more familiar with the TV series on Showtime called The Tudors, which also chronicles the sexcapades of Henry. In that show, Henry is played by young, Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Neither Bana nor Meyers bear any resemblance to the real Henry VIII.
The real Henry VIII was Santa Claus compared to Eric Bana. Bana has a great physique. He's lean, not plump like all portraits of the real Henry. He has a raw modern, sex appeal, mixed with a confident, standoffish attitude about him that gives him a definite taller stature. Yet, it's intriguing to watch all that undermined in this movie, as he ultimately bends to the will of Anne Boleyn.
Initially, he wouldn't even give her a second glance. By happenstance, Henry takes more of an interest in Anne's sister, Mary, played demurely by Scarlet Johansson. Mary is resistent to Henry's charms because she's married, despite the fact her wedding night didn't bring fireworks.
Again, Mary's father and uncle impress upon her the benefits that producing a male child for the king could bring. What are amazing are the great and open conversations these people have about this whole situation. For some, it's all about social status and wealth, and the women are just instruments toward that. It's frightening to think that in many ways, the father and uncle are glorified pimps.
There's also this pastoral aspect that values the country life over court life. The majority of the film occurs within the walls of the king's court. In that way, the film is very claustrophobic, but Portman's performance, offset by Johansson's, is so amazing that you don't even notice. Anne's mother is a closeted feminist who rejects the father and uncle's scheming, but after becoming bitter from Henry's initial rejection, Anne plots to use her sexuality as a weapon. Sadly, that sexuality goes too far and ultimately leads to her demise.
Portman plays it very well. Supporting performances from Jim Sturgess who plays their brother George Boleyn, Oscar-nominee Kristin Scott Thomas as Lady Elizabeth Boleyn, their mother, as well as Spanish actress Ana Torrent as Queen Katherine, all enrich this historical drama. Chadwick's compositional cinematography in these closed quarters. The natural wipes make this one of the most smooth editedly pieces of the year.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated PG-13 for sexual content and mature themes
Running Time: 1 hr. and 55 mins.