*For those who have not read the book: this review does contain spoilers*
Lush surroundings, extravagant feasts, and more leisure time than anyone else does not necessarily ensure a carefree court. Not when the King of England has produced no male heir and his older queen is as dried up as a piece of salt-pork. Rather than concede defeat, these royals – and the novel and moment of history in which they star – churn up more drama and tension than many of us care to experience, even on the big screen.
The 2002 novel by Philippa Gregory is a really a caution against denying reality and wielding power over others, and at 622 pages, it reads like a shamefully addictive mini-series that no one admits watching. Very detailed and engaging, this literary tale of seduction and betrayal is an effective escape from current reality, but condensed into 2 hours and conveyed with frighteningly convincing images and actors, it becomes difficult to bear emotionally.
King Henry fears the demise of his unified England should he die without a male successor to the throne, a coveted son. Unfortunately his aging wife, Queen Catherine, has only managed a daughter and many stillborns. Henry, partly because of his political concern but mostly due to his unchecked and insatiable ego, is regularly charmed by other young women at court. Actor Eric Bana handsomely contrasts the childishness of the king with his adult anguish over the demands of his position, and convinces (some of) us that young women could overlook his immaturity and irrationality long enough to seduce him.
Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johanssen are surprisingly perfect as Anne and Mary Boleyn, the sisters who take turns beguiling and bedding the ridiculous king as an order from their power-hungry uncle. The heartbreaking depth of the story lies in the heavy prices they pay for their involvement in the scheme: as a scorned and heartbroken Anne steals the king from Mary, they realize that their relationship with each other is the most painful to lose.
In order to deliver the same spectrum of destruction as the book, the overall chronology is rearranged in a pleasingly concise manner, making the film a more sensible medium for this somewhat tedious story. One element that was sorely lacking in the movie was their brother George Boleyn’s deep committment to his family’s honor and the havoc it rains upon him. Perhpas as consolation for less subplot, there is comic relief in the form of utterly gigantic bed pillows just when it is most needed – another scene of a screeching woman giving birth to another royal bastard. Welcome to the kingdom.