Mid 1500’s, a time where the slightest brush with royalty could bring untold riches, status and position, many daughters would be treated as chattels and used as a one way ticket to “better things”.
Of course, flying too close to the burning bulb of Royalty could mean getting burnt, sometimes very badly indeed.
Living a seemingly contented and well funded lifestyle, the Boleyn patrician (Rylance), who spends the film looking worried with good reason, is tempted by his brother in law the Duke of Norfolk, to aim higher still on the slippery ladder of ambition. This is achieved by parading his daughter Anne (Portman) in front of Henry VIII King of England (Bana) during a weekend hunt.
The timing is right as the king has tired of his present wife who has also failed to produce a male heir.
As these things tend to do, it works well, all too well but unfortunately the Kings eye is turned not by Anne but Mary (Johanssen). Mary is already recently married but this is a minor inconvenience and quicker than you can say Tudor social climbing, the family are ensconced at the royal court.
To this point, the action is rather pedestrian and reminiscent of a well acted and financed BBC TV production. Not too much realism but enough to show the times as one might imagine, in a decidedly BBC kind of way i.e. untidy but not really dirty.
Once we are at court the action heats up.
The King becomes besotted with Mary and bedroom events are plotted in minute detail by the family to ensure not only coupling takes place but many times. Reassurances are sought as to whether the King was pleased, before the next piece of plan is carefully layed in place.
Mary then falls pregnant and eventually produces a male child, which of course will not do at all as she is only the King’s mistress, ironically making the sought after male child, not part of the Royal succession. The King then quickly tires of Mary, moving onto Anne who plays a waiting game holding back her virtue and starts to plot an end game. This is without thought for the tragic consequences that her actions would have or indeed the danger in which she is placing the whole family.
For Anne to become Queen (as Mary was of course merely a mistress), the Kings present wife Catherine of Arragon will have to be divorced, the marriage annulled. Of course like any marriage break up, this is nasty bitter stuff. Although most divorce proceedings do not include an option to break from “Rome” and hence create your own church to allow you to have your own way.
Without launching a history lesson and for those that know their Royal Mnemonic (Divorced, Executed, died etc), many will know that this will not end well, not well at all.
Anne’s destiny is pre-ordained, despite her bringing the future and very successful, Elizabeth I into the world.
So with the destination known, is the journey worth the time?
The simple answer would be yes.
Following a rather BBC Drama department start, the film gathers pace and whilst “Hollywoodised”, certainly does give glimpses into the machinations that would have occurred within the incestuous confines of the court. Both Johanssen and Portman are good and Bana makes a good stab at a person with limitless power, suddenly faced with choices he does not like and maybe, just maybe, actually not able to get what he wants.
Kristin Scott Thomas as the mother of the Boleyn girls and boys has a good line where, faced with the statement that the Tudor world is only created for men, she simply states that it is a wife’s job to create the illusion that this is true, despite all the real power residing in the woman’s hands.
Perhaps nothing has changed that much.
Of course the real King executed some 56, 000 – 70,000 subjects within his 38 year reign, that’s around five per day and all this despite having six wives and numerous affairs. He was also massively overweight in later years and despite the movies treatment of him, would probably have treated the women in his orbit well, only until they fell to his charms at which point they clearly became disposable.
But no matter, we do not want to that reality on the big screen, this is entertainment after all.
Better than you expect but not quite as good as you might have hoped.
Nevertheless, engaging, well acted and with decent production values, worth watching.
May well have you researching “Wikipedia” for what really happened, which is not a bad result