Two sisters, Anne and Mary Boleyn, are driven by their ambitious Father and Uncle to advance the family's power and status by courting the affections of the King of England. Leaving behind the simplicity of country life, the girls are thrust into the dangerous and thrilling world of court life--and what began as a bid to help their family develops into a ruthless rivalry between Anne and Mary for the love of the King. Initially, Mary wins King Henry's favor and becomes his mistress, bearing him two illegitimate children. But Anne, clever, conniving and fearless, edges aside both her sister and Henry's wife, Queen Katherine of Aragon, in her relentless pursuit of the King. Despite Mary's genuine feelings for Henry, her sister Anne has her sights set on the ultimate prize; Anne will not stop until she is Queen of England. As the Boleyn girls battle for the love of a King--one driven by ambition, the other by true affection--England is torn apart.
I remember wanting to see this movie when I saw the previews last year, but then I read some so-so reviews at different blogs, which disappointed me. I had originally planned to read the book first, though I was told (I think by Jenster) that the order of the books was different. Regardless, I never read the book. But I did go see the movie. And I actually liked it. I went in with low expectations because of the reviews I'd read, and it definitely helped me to accept the film at face value rather than have high hopes that end up dashed.
Word of caution: possible SPOILERS ahead.
When the film begins, King Henry's wife, Catherine of Aragon, has just delivered a stillborn baby boy. This is bad news for Henry, who feels strongly compelled to have a male heir to secure the throne, but good news for the Duke of Norfolk, who rushes to his brother-in-law's home to set an ambitious plan in motion. He believes he can gain power and riches if one of his nieces, a Boleyn girl, can capture the attention of the king and become his mistress. Since Mary is to be married, Anne is the one selected. The King comes to visit and notices the lovely, ambitious Anne, but when he is injured, indirectly caused by Anne, the Duke quickly thrusts the quieter, more submissive Mary into the role of nursemaid, and she successfully captures his attention, prompting him to set her up in the Queen's Court. Though already married, Henry makes Mary his mistress, and soon gets her with child.
Meanwhile Anne is not content to let others plan her life, so she secretly marries a nobleman, one who is already betrothed. When her sister Mary finds out, she tells her father and uncle, who are angered by Anne's impulsive and selfish behavior. Since marriages of noblemen are matters of state, Anne's marriage to Henry Percy will ruin her. She is sent to France, in exile, with the hope that this experience will mature her.
Mary is suffering from a difficult pregnancy, and must remain bedridden so as not to endanger the child. Once again Norfolk schemes to keep the King's interest in one of his nieces, and orders Anne back home to England. Anne has changed much during her time in France, coming back more confident and sophisticated, luring the King with her humor and her flirtatious ways. But she is even more ambitious than her uncle, and holds off the King's advances. She demands he stay away from her sister Mary, who has just given birth to a son, and he does so, desperate to bed the seductive Anne.
Yet still Anne pushes for more, telling Henry she will not be his mistress, but his Queen, before she allows him into her bed. This is not a light request, as such an order would require that he divorce Catherine, and anger the people, who love his Queen. In the end Henry is willing to go through with it all if it gets him what he wants, but the break with the Roman Catholic Church has pushed Henry past his limits, and he ends up raping her. Anne is shaken, confused, possibly finally realizing what a precarious position she has put herself in, even now as Henry's new queen.
Her situation becomes even more fragile when she gives birth to a girl, Elizabeth, and the strain between the royal couple is considerable. Shortly after, Anne becomes pregnant again, but miscarries her son shortly after. Terrified, a desperate Anne pleads with her brother George to help her get pregnant, but in the end neither can go through with it. (I admit, I don't know my history very well because I did not see this one coming). However George's wife Jane sees them together and is suspicious enough to alert the King. Both Anne and George are sentenced to be executed. Mary rushes back to court, trying to save her siblings. It is too late for George, but Mary pleads with Henry to spare her sister's life. Though he has much respect and affection for Mary, he does not stop Anne's death, and she is beheaded. Henry tells Mary never to come back to court, convinced it will put her in danger. Before she leaves for good, Mary takes her niece Elizabeth with her. The same Elizabeth who would one day be Queen.
Well. Lots of death, intrigue, sex, ambition. Henry was a randy King, always looking for the next woman to bed, his attentions never captured for long. Well if you look like Eric Bana, who's gonna blame you? If Henry had been an unattractive King, I think his behavior would have been more reprehensible and more difficult to accept. And he was the King, so who was going to say no? He did seem to have tender feelings for Mary, one of the few people he actually trusted and sought out her counsel from time to time, yet even she could not hold him.
Mary was for the most part a good woman, content to be married and live a simple life but accepting of her duty when she captures the eye of the King. Mary has fallen for the King, and is heartbroken by his fading interest, not to mention his lust for her own sister. She tries to do what's right, but will lie for her sister to protect her. Of course the big thing that is really unpalatable is how women are bartered like inanimate objects, and even the married Mary is used as a pawn to further her family's ambitions. Of course this is nearly 500 years ago, and things were much different back then, but that doesn't make it any easier to watch. But Mary does her duty, serves her King, and in the end, she lives out her days as she once dreamed of, quietly in the country.
Anne is her father's favorite, and as ambitious as her uncle. She eagerly seeks out the King's attention, perhaps reaching too high, and rebelling against her family's wishes. Even being sent into exile does little to dampen her campaign. She does not understand her sister's love for the King; she only understands power and influence, and grabs tightly to both. She will walk all over her family if that's what it takes. Natalie Portman did an amazing job of making her easy to dislike, yet also easy to sympathize with, especially when her life is in danger. The birth of her first child surprisingly brings out her maternal instincts, and while she's disappointed she had a girl, it's also obvious she loves her child. Later, her fear is palpable when she loses her second child, and her terror drives her to an unimaginable solution that, though never carried out, results in her death. Her ambitions have gotten the best of her, and though she drove herself to this point, it was sad to see it happen.
All in all, it was an enjoyable movie, if rather bloodthirsty. It was also a beautiful film, with the lush costumes and shots of the country, the castle, and court. It was not an easy film, but it certainly kept me watching throughout the whole thing, so I was never bored. I would say not to expect too much, but leave your mind open to it, and then you may be able to enjoy it as much as I did. I really want to read the book now.
Rating: **** out of *****