Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl & Beowulf

I saw "The Other Boleyn Girl" last night, which is loosely based on the life of Mary Boleyn, sister to Anne Boleyn. Anne is the more famous of the two, having been the short-lived second wife of Henry VIII and the mother of Elizabeth I before she was beheaded. Historically overlooked, Mary in fact also had a relationship with King Henry. She was his mistress (in the more common meaning of the word) before her sister's relationship with him started.

The film portrayed Mary as the younger and more virtuous sister, whereas Anne was scheming and downright nasty. My curiousity was peaked - I wanted to know how accurate it was historically. I did a bit of research to find out the real story (yes I used wiki. If you have a problem with that, do your own research and get back to me!).

True to the film, it appears Mary was considered the more attractive of the two while Anne was the more ambitious. Mary apparently did give herself freely to Henry, whereas Anne held him at bay until he agreed to divorce his wife and marry her. But what I found most fascinating, and in the end disappointing, was an important aspect of Mary's character which was not just brushed over but twisted to its exact opposite.

For Mary was not the feckless virginal younger sister depicted in the film. Rather, she was the older, more sexually experienced sister. Before she ever became the lover of Henry, she had already had a taste of royalty as the mistress of French King Francis I, who later described her as "a great whore, the most infamous of all."

After their affair ended, she embarked on several others in the French court, the scandal of which eventually led to her dismissal. In my mind, the only reason to omit this would be to satisfy a rather limited view of acceptable feminine behavior for a sympathic female protaganist, being that it is Mary we are supposed to be rooting for in this film.

Both the film and historical interpretation agree that Mary avoided the pursuit of politics, the entanglements of which proved so deadly for her younger sister. And historians also seem to agree that her final marriage to a commoner was likely a union born out of true love, as it made no logical sense in terms of familial upward mobility and caused her to be disowned and outcast.

Perhaps she proved the wisest of them all, to figure out what really mattered in this life: love, pleasure and simplicity. Though she faded into obscurity, she alone lived out the remainder of her days in peace, while her only brother and sister were executed for treason. It's just too bad that the film did not have the guts to show her in all her glory, as a wise and sexually adventurous woman. It would have only been hotter!


On another movie note, I never got around to commenting on Beowulf after it came out, so let me do so now. This movie impressed and surprised me with its femme power elements, I ended up seeing it twice (once in IMAX 3D which was so-so, once regular 3D which was much better). When I saw comic book writer extraordinaire Neil Gaiman on the credits as co-screenwriter, I understood why this had surpassed my expectations and transcended the genre conventions of a typical macho action adventure.

To understand what I found so intriguing about Beowulf, allow me to indulge in a tangent...

I had an English professor for undergrad who liked to have us watch television shows like I Love Lucy and movies like Ordinary People, then reinterpret them from alternative points of view. Basically turning the perspective upside or sideways, so that the antagonists could be seen in a sympathetic light or the peripheral characters came to the forefront. In Europe, I also studied the "histoire des mentalit├ęs" or history of world views, which utilized anthropological tools such as statistics and church records in an attempt to understand the marginalized, the covered up and the previously unspoken for.

OK, now back to the movie. Watching Beowulf unfold, the beginning of the story arc proceeded uneventfully and I anticipated an entertaining if unchallenging re-telling of the old Nordic tale. Then the film did something very clever. It shifted. It basically told another version of the warrior's epic poem from a point of view which included the women, and which acknowledged the failings of being human (or in this case, being a man).

I am an unabashed Angelina Jolie fan, and thought she was perfect casting for the ultimate seducer of men. I felt sorry for these hapless men, as they bent to her will and had their lives ruined for it!


Ah yes, the fantasy of woman as temptress, as the downfall of man. It is a fun one to play with. Sadly, in the case of Anne Boleyn, her inability to provide Henry with a male heir led him to feel he had been bewitched and betrayed. Her seduction of the king - though historically huge, leading as it did to the end of England's ties to the Catholic Church and the establishment of Protestantism as the state religion - was no match for the violent machinations of medieval men. No wonder her daughter stayed the Virgin Queen!