Take away the sumptuous settings and Hollywood glamour and what you have here is like Henry VIII for Dummies enacted by the cast of the OC.
Natalie Portman plays Anne Boleyn, who became the second of Henry VIII’s six wives and the mother of Queen Elizabeth I. When Anne arrived at court, Henry was married to a much-older Spanish princess who had been the wife of his late brother. She was unable to produce a male heir, and the impetuous king was vulnerable to the plotting of courtiers who deployed their female family members for power and money. The Boleyn family had two daughters. Mary (Scarlett Johansson), the quiet one who married young and wanted a simple life in the country, caught the king’s eye and became his mistress. Anne, the headstrong one who wanted to be more than a mistress, ended up sundering not only a marriage but Britain’s ties to the Catholic church. She became queen, but like her predecessor (and three of the four wives who followed) she did not produce a male heir. She was beheaded on charges of treason, adultery, and incest.
This film takes one of the most extraordinary events in history, operatic in its scope, gripping in its narrative, with mesmerizing characters and decisions that changed every aspect of Western civilization and turned it into a soap opera with the depth and complexity of a post-it note. Johansson looks dewy. Portman is not entirely comfortable being saucy and does not know how to flash her eyes, but as Anne falls apart, she pulls the performance together. But the costumes do a better job of telling the story than the script does, with the sisters dressing alike when they are close and in contrasting attire when they are competing. The film has so little faith in its audience that the characters keep explaining what is going on all the time. Occasionally it all sounds laughably high school: “They say he is with Jane Seymour now. Is it true?” You expect the answer to be, “I heard he asked her to the prom.” The best way to describe this 16th century drama is in 21st century terms: no, it’s not smarter than a 5th grader.
Parents should know that this movie has some mature material, including explicit sexual references and situations including rape, childbirth scenes including miscarriage and stillbirth, and beheadings. The Boleyn’s father and uncle treat the girls like property to be bargained or sacrificed for the family’s benefit, pushing them into adulterous relationships. There are references to incest, impotence and sex acts that a character finds perverted. Characters drink and use some strong language of the era.
Families who see this movie should talk about the biggest differences between what was important to Mary and to Anne. Why did the king prefer Anne? Why did he trust Mary? How were Mary, Anne, and George influenced by their parents? How are today’s political scandals like those of Henry VIII’s era?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the book, and movies about the era Anne of the Thousand Days, Mary, Queen of Scots and A Man for All Seasons.