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This film is based on the Philippa Gregory book of the same name, which in turn is loosely based on the life of Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne.

Henry VIII has become bored with his wife Katherine of Aragon, and frustrated at her ability to produce a male heir.  The Duke of Norfolk Thomas Howard, and his brother in law Thomas Boleyn see an opportunity to elevate their family’s financial and social position by enticing the king with Anne Boleyn – the hope being that Anne will become eventual Queen.  However, Anne quickly falls out of favour, and so the family push Anne’s sister Mary towards the king instead – and the two begin an affair.  When Mary becomes pregnant, the family worry that Henry will lose interest in her, and so enlist Anne to keep his attention away from other women (namely Jane Seymour) and to keep his interest in Mary.  However, Anne has her own plans and soon lures Henry away.  But when Anne becomes Queen of England, she realises that neither her safety nor her security is assured…

As a piece of historical fiction, I enjoyed this film.  However, it appears to be only loosely based upon the novel, and huge (and I do mean huge) chunks of the story have been cut out or changed (for instance, Mary only has one child with Henry in this film – but in the book, she had two; also when Anne was executed, a number of men were also executed for commiting adultery with her – in the movie however, only her brother George is shown as being executed).  This means that the film moves on at a more disjointed pace than the book.

Natalie Portman is truly beautiful as the enchanting and scheming Anne Boleyn, and while I am not always a fan of Scarlett Johansson’s acting, I think she did a good job here, although Mary is portrayed as very meek and mild, which almost certainly was not really the case.  I did feel sorry for her character though – plucked from a happy marriage, to be paraded before the king, to serve her family’s own selfish interests.  However, while certainly the fault of the actors, the characterisation of the characters was largely unexplored – a shame, because it felt like a missed opportunity.

Eric Bana played Henry VIII at a time in his life when the king was still young, handsome and charismatic.  Although he shows flashes of compassion however, he is portrayed as selfish and egotistical.  All three leads played their parts well.  Kristin Scott Thomas was also icily cool as the motherof the Boleyn girls, who is upset at the way her husband and brother in law exploit their daughters.  The only weak link in the cast for me was David Morrissey who played the Duke of Norfolk.  Morrissey is normally a reliable actor, but he seemed somewhat miscast here.

Overall then, as a piece of entertainment this is a film I would recommend to fans of the genre – it certainly held my attention throughout – but under no circumstances should be taken as historically accurate.  (This does not personally bother me; after all both the film and novel are classed as fiction – however, the inaccuracies may bother some viewers.)  One thing that did bother me – the film did not even attempt to explain what happened to William Carey, the first husband of Mary Boleyn (he actually died of a sweating disease), which I felt was something of an oversight.  I’d be eager to see the 2003 adaptation of the book, to see how the two compare.

Year of release: 2008

Director: Justin Chadwick

Writers: Philippa Gregory (book), Peter Morgan

Main cast: Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana, Kristin Scott Thomas, David Morrisey

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Click here for my review of the novel.)

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This is the story of Anne Boleyn, told through the eyes of her sister Mary.  As a young girl, Mary finds herself manipulated by her avaricious family to become King Henry VIII’s lover, with an end to usurping Queen Katherine of Aragon.  The Boleyn’s believe that if Mary becomes queen, they will be vastly elevated in terms of wealth and social status.  Even after having two children by Henry, Mary finds his interest in her waning, and sees that he is turning his affections to her sister Anne.  There is no other choice for Mary than to assist Anne in dethroning Queen Katherine.  As she matures, Mary grows tired of the political games played in the royal court, and decides to make her own way in life.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  The Tudors have never been an exciting subject for me, but Philippa Gregory brings the era to life and makes it fascinating.  It should be remembered that this is a fictionalised account of events, and there are differences between what Mary tells and what current historians believe.  (For example, in the book Mary is portrayed as the younger sister, whereas in fact it is now widely accepted that she was older than Anne.  Also, while in the book there is no doubt that Henry is the father of Mary’s children, in truth it was never known for sure).

Each character is distinct and interesting.  Anne does not come out of this account well; she is portrayed as calculating and ruthless.  Mary is drawn more sympathetically (perhaps not surprising as the book is told from her point of view). Another major character is their brother George, whose own fate is told in this story, and who is a charming and reckless man, who serves in the royal court.  Henry himself is brought to life as a headstrong, spoilt young man, who is utterly handsome and charming in his youth, but who, during the period which the book spans, becomes bloated and unwell.

The story moves along at a steady pace, and even though I knew the ultimate outcome, I still found myself turning the pages quickly, wanting to know what new developments were around the corner.  I would recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in the Tudors (and if you have no interest, this might be a book to change your mind).  After reading it, I found myself wanting find out more about this fascinating and brutal time in England’s history.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Click here for my review of the 2008 movie adaptation.

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