The Other Boleyn Girl

Wretched and disgraced, Sir Thomas Boleyn died two years later.

The Duke of Norfolk was later imprisoned. The next three generations of his family – son, grandson, great grandson – were all executed for treason.

Henry’s decision to break with the Catholic Church changed the face of England forever.

Mary married William Stafford and lived happily with him away from court for the rest of her life.

Henry’s fear of leaving England without a strong successor turned out to be unfounded.

He did leave an heir, who was to rule over England for forty-five years.

It was not the boy he yearned for, but the strong red-haired girl Anne gave him –

Elizabeth.

So ends the movie. (I’ve decided there are no “spoilers” for 14th-century history.) It left me with an odd feeling…for a movie ostensibly about two women, it sure was all about the man. And there was an odd dynamic of Good Mary/ Bad Anne going on with regards to their ambition etc.

First, the way the plot revolves almost entirely around Henry. This makes sense, because the “story” of Anne Boleyn is very much about Henry, but it is also very much about Henry’s descent into madness. He destroys much that matters to him– his faith, women he loved– and many more lives of people who ceased to matter to him, in his need for ultimate power and control. (Henry is very much obsessed with control.) There’s a good story to be told about Henry.

And yet…this movie revolves around Henry, but it doesn’t tell the story about Henry. Look again at the first three subtitle-fates we’re given

Wretched and disgraced, Sir Thomas Boleyn died two years later.

Destroyed by his brush with Henry’s madness, makes sense with Henry’s story, all right.

The Duke of Norfolk was later imprisoned. The next three generations of his family – son, grandson, great grandson – were all executed for treason.

Victims of Henry’s growing irrational suspicion of everyone, definitely a good example, okay.

Henry’s decision to break with the Catholic Church changed the face of England forever.

Buh?!?

Try something like, “Henry continued to destroy the lives around him in his quest for control, going through four more wives and executing one– and countless other courtiers– for treason.” I mean, a better sentence could be written, but that’s the sort of summary of Henry’s life that would fit with this movie. Exactly two scenes mention his break with the Catholic Church– this movie wasn’t about the Catholic Church. Everybody knows that part of the story. This movie deals almost exclusively with the beginning– Anne’s failed flirtation, his relationship with Mary– and with the end– Anne’s desperate failure to produce a son. We go from Anne’s first suggestion that he annul his marriage with Catherine to Elizabeth’s birth in fifteen minutes.

This means that the movie also focuses on the beginning and and of Henry’s story– his initial peace, then growing dissatisfaction with Catherine; his search for affection with Mary, and the sweetness he shows her; the souring of that relationship, as he continues to refuse to be satisfied; his betrayal of Mary for Anne; twenty minutes on how he comes to marry Anne, then the deterioration of their relationship; then, his final unwillingness to trust or show mercy, culminating in Anne and her brother’s bloody deaths. This is the story that the movie told. The deterioration of a man. This is the story that the ending should have included. But instead, we get rubbish about the Church of England, and how Elizabeth made a great heir after all.

It occurs to me, that even though I thought I saw that story, maybe the screenwriters saw a different one. I thought we were meant to see the change in him when, in the middle, he rapes Anne. I thought it a plausible embellishment– it’s certainly possible, given his state, that he would have gotten angry with Anne and taken her before their wedding. It would show how much he was losing his grip, how much he needed control– because he could never control Anne the way he could Mary, and that’s the whole reason he pursued her; he had to dominate Anne. And when Anne asks Mary later, and Mary says he was always tender with her, surprisingly tender, I thought the screenwriters were hitting us over the head with the idea that Henry was losing it.

But with this ending…I worry that instead, the screenwriters were trying to tell the story of Good Sweet Mary and her sister, Anne That Ambitious Bitch. In this story, Anne tries to show off and pursue the king, but he prefers the girl who is sweet and shy. He is loving and gentle with Mary because she is so good and quiet, but Anne is too ambitious and showy, and seduces him away from her sister, spoiling that happy relationship. But because she still won’t submit to the king, forcing him to jump through more and more hoops for her, she also ruins her relationship with him. He rapes her because she has been leading him on for too long and needs to be put in her place. Their marriage is loveless because she never loved him, and only wanted his power and money. Their sex life is strained because she is not soft and sensuous like a woman should be– at one point, she tells Mary that she has to do ever more degrading things to arouse him, and then he hates himself for it, and hates her for making him do it (since she should be more wholesome.) In the end, Anne gets what’s coming for her and is beheaded, but Mary is shown mercy because the king respects her goodness, and so Mary gets to live happily ever after in the wholesome country without any of that icky money or ambition, raising children with a former servant. The end!

This is the story that I think the movie was really trying to tell, and I must say, it is not a story I like nearly so much.

ETA: Upon reflection, this would also explain the sometimes-confusing relationship between Mary and Anne. I originally saw it as the kind of complicated relationship that siblings often have, where they love each other because they’re sisters and sisters have to, but they are also often very frustrated with each other. They compete and sometimes betray each other or make each other angry but they keep coming back to each other because of that bond of sisterhood; their relationship is tense on both sides, but ultimately loving.

However, at many points (which are rather hard to articulate after the fact, actually) one or both would say something that didn’t fit this interpretation– Anne would be a bit cruel even in the middle of an apology, or the apology itself would be unclear, or, in a scene I remember clearly, she seemed absolutely overjoyed that even as her sister held his son, Henry preferred her. It seemed to go beyond the tense competition into something rather spiteful, or else it didn’t seem to return to the note of love quite soon enough.

But if we assume that Mary is Good and Anne is Not, all becomes clear. Anne is sometimes cruel to Mary because Anne is a cruel person with no sisterly feeling. Mary always forgives her because Mary is good like that. Sometimes Anne is kind to Mary, but only if she wants something or only to maintain appearances. Sometimes Mary does something to make Anne upset (like reporting Anne’s secret marriage) but that’s not a betrayal, that’s for Anne’s own good; Anne only feels betrayed because Anne’s goals are not good and pure.

I know that the real people these characters are based on were complex and had multi-faceted relationships, because all real people do, and it is possible to watch this film as if they were nuanced people, but increasingly I fear that the Mary Good/Anne Bad assumption explains more things that it doesn’t.

Was it like this in the book as well? I’ll have to read it. I certainly hope it wasn’t!

ETA again: There’s an excellent post on related ideas over at Hathor Legacy, here.

ETA a third time: turns out I had so much more to say about this, I just went ahead and wrote a second post. Check it out.

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3 Responses to The Other Boleyn Girl

  1. Colleen says:

    the screenwriters were trying to tell the story of Good Sweet Mary and her sister, Anne That Ambitious Bitch

    Based on the book, that’s spot on. Any retelling that actually takes the side that Anne and her brother had an incestuous relationship is clearly just out to portray her as Anne Boleyn, Jezebel to End All Jezebels. And Gregory also makes the rookie mistake of imbuing a historical character she personally likes with modern sensibilities (throwing it all away for lurve!) to make her more sympathetic. That, in my opinion, is another reason Anne and Mary’s relationship often doesn’t seem to ring true: they’re operating under two entirely different sets of rules, and everyone else is operating under a third. Their actions and attitudes don’t make sense for the time they’re in, or in relationship to each other’s worlds.

    In my opinion, there’s a much more interesting story to be told about these sisters. I think they were both, in very different ways, trying desperately to lighten as much as possible the yoke of male domination. Anne harnessed her sexuality, the only power she had, to rise to a post in which only one man could tell her what to do. Mary bore it meekly as long as she could in order to lessen its ill effects, then at first opportunity ran off with someone who, by virtue of his far inferior class and income, would have a much harder time asserting his rights as a husband. But instead of being an object lesson in how women lose in a male-dominated world, it’s a lesson about how women should really just submit to their penis-having masters already.

  2. eloriane says:

    Oh dear, is the book just as bad? What a pity…I remembered enjoying it several years ago but I have a terrible book-memory. Probably I did the same thing I did with the movie, and identified with Anne despite the book’s intentions.

    I think they were both, in very different ways, trying desperately to lighten as much as possible the yoke of male domination.
    THAT is a fantastic interpretation. (I wish I’d thought of it myself!) This is probably also why I am sympathetic to Anne against the text; I see a woman trying to gain power as a brave pioneer and someone to be admired, whereas the patriarchy sees the same woman as a danger to the very foundations of society. (Which she would be, but that’s what’s cool.)

    I think especially knowing that Elizabeth had a very successful reign, this story could be about Anne’s triumph over the patriarchy. She died young, but she lived pretty uncompromisingly. No to mention that Anne could have agreed to an annulment, but doing so would have made Elizabeth a bastard– she died so her daughter could be queen, and her daughter was a pretty kick-ass queen, and one of the best-known, best-loved English monarchs. Which could easily be played as a triumph over the patriarchy.

    But since all movie makers seem to have a big fat crush on the patriarchy these days, instead of a story about a strong woman’s (posthumously) successful fight, or, as you said, two women’s losing battles for autonomy, we get….well, “a lesson about how women should really just submit to their penis-having masters already.”

  3. […] people– could easily be told in a very similar way, as astute commenter Colleen pointed out here. I think they were both, in very different ways, trying desperately to lighten as much as possible […]

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