- DESERT ISLAND DISCS
- LADY ANTONIA FRASER'S LIFE LESS ORDINARY
- RESPONSE TO LETTER SENT TO THE BRITISH LIBRARY
- SPEECH GIVEN AT THE OPENING OF ‘ON THE NATURE OF WOMEN'
- LETTER SENT TO THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF THE BRITISH LIBRARY
- SPEECH GIVEN AT THE ‘CELEBRATION FOR DRAGON WOMEN’ LUNCH (2)
- SPEECH GIVEN AT ‘CELEBRATION FOR DRAGON WOMEN’ LUNCH (1)
- THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (Part 2)
- THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (Part 1)
- ANTONIA FRASER'S DIARY
- Truth and Reality in Operatic Librettos (part three)
- Truth and Reality in Operatic Librettos (part two)
- Truth and Reality in Operatic Librettos (part one)
- Society Portraits
- THE FRENCH CHILD
- CULTURAL LIFE
- QUEEN ELIZABETH: A PERSONAL VIEW
- ANTONIA FRASER’S DIARY
- IF I CAME BACK AS…
- SPECTATOR DIARY
- LOVE, LOUIS XIV AND ME Part 2
- LOVE, LOUIS XIV AND ME
- MY HERO
- BODIAM CASTLE
THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (Part 1)
THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL
‘A picture of the ages more vivid and memorable than anything in Tacitus or Gibbon or Macaulay’: thus the late great George Macdonald Fraser sprang to the aid of historical movies in a book called The Hollywood History of the World. In it he claimed that inaccuracies simply didn’t matter. We historians might beg to differ (quickly taking the opportunity to ally myself with the Three Wise Men) – but then we would, wouldn’t we? It remains an interesting question for historians, teachers and all lovers of history whether the creator of Flashman had a point: do the many inaccuracies, not to say travesties, in historical movies really matter compared to the general illumination and insight they may bring? The latest historical offering The Other Boleyn Girl makes a perfect case in point for us to consider the question.
My personal experience of historical films has been a happy one. In 2006 I was lucky enough to have my biography of Marie Antoinette made into a film, written and directed by Sofia Coppola. I say lucky because everything went well from the beginning, starting with the moment when I told her with sincerity: ‘I have given my vision in my book, and anyone who wants to know what I think can read it. Now you make your movie, give your vision, and, as it were, don’t mind me.’ In short, I told myself from the start that a book and a movie were two quite different things and as a result I had absolutely no problem of emotional possessiveness throughout our five year association.
I certainly loved the movie including Sofia’s daring use of rock music to delineate the eighteenth century party girl she took the French Queen to be. People who expected - or hoped - that I would shudder were disappointed. Inaccuracies? As such there were remarkably few in the story. I remember having a few pangs at the apparently disrespectful way courtiers treated the Queen; Rose Byrne as the Princesse de Lamballe comes to mind, bustling into the royal box at the opera without so much as a curtsey, merely an enthusiastic cry of ‘Cheree!’ But I have to admit that if the film had followed the correct elaborate protocols of Versaille it would have lasted six hours or more. I had the same problem, incidentally, with the recent Elizabeth: The Golden Age, in which Clive Owen as Sir Walter Raleigh drove me mad by persistently strutting about in front of Cate Blanchett’s Queen like Errol Flynn in a white ruffled shirt open to the navel. ‘Get that man a doublet,’ I hissed.
Sofia decided early on to end the story before Marie Antoinette was executed, with her enforced departure from Versailles and the vanishing of the old way of life. So no tragic execution scene. ‘We know all that,’ she told me, leaving me to reflect basely ‘and if we don’t, we can always go and buy my book’. Vivid and memorable, in Macdonald Fraser’s phrase? Certainly the exquisite, Oscar-winning costumes and settings conveyed more richly than my hopefully fine descriptions ever could, the world of Marie Antoinette. And I find that in my mind’s eye Kirsten Dunst’s wistful face has begun to take over from the portraits as the image of the ill-fated Queen: which is fine because there is a remarkable similarity of type even if the movie star, lacking the Habsburg lip, is that much more beautiful – fortunately for us viewers.
Sofia Coppola’s strong sense of what she did and did not want to do – this is the ‘getting of wisdom by a young girl’, not a biopic – saved the film forever from the tedium of some earlier historical movies: Hal Wallis’ Mary Queen of Scots (1971) comes to mind. Glenda Jackson harrumphed as Queen Elizabeth and Vanessa Redgrave lamented as Mary in thoroughly predictable ways. Furthermore the film featured the notorious scene-that-never-was in which the two queens met. So it couldn’t even claim to be an accurate picture. This scene was first invented by Schiller in his play about Mary, and later used by Donizetti in his opera Maria Stuarda. It makes a wonderful contest on the stage with Mary finally losing her cool in front of the woman who can save her and denouncing her as the daughter of the ‘impure Anne Boleyn’: she calls Elizabeth vil bastarda (it sounds even better in Italian). But such a major rewriting of history can’t really be justified in a second rate historical movie – even if Schiller the genius is permitted anything.
The Other Boleyn Girl is set in Tudor times – and they are times we are getting to know pretty well in film terms these days, what with the successful TV series The Tudors last autumn, as well as Elizabeth: The Golden Age. The story is taken from Philippa Gregory’s best-selling novel of the same title. It is adapted for the screen by Peter Morgan, recently celebrated for writing the screenplay about a very different queen, Elizabeth II as portrayed by Helen Mirren. ‘The other Boleyn girl’ is Mary, Anne’s lesser known sister who had also had an affair with Henry. Basically the film centres on the rivalry between the two sisters, their alternating bouts of love, jealousy, betrayal and support ending in a denouement which has Mary trying in vain to save Anne from the scaffold, despite the fact that the predatory Anne successfully took Henry away from her. In case you didn’t notice that the girls are sisters, they repeatedly remind us of the fact throughout the movie, with moments of philosophy such as: ‘because she’s my sister… she’s one half of me.’
The first thing to be said is that the film is extremely enjoyable, partly because of stellar performances by Natalie Portman as Anne and Scarlett Johansson as Mary, one a sultry dark beauty and the other fairy-tale blonde. In fact there is a fairy-tale element to the whole story, it’s Rose Red and Snow White for adults, with Eric Bana as a fairly charming Prince, frequently stripping off. (Having become a connoisseur of Henry VIII’s chest, I rather preferred that of The Tudors’ Jonathan Rhys Meyer.) There’s a further dazzling performance by Kristin Scott Thomas as the girls’ mother in which she allows herself – surely – to be artificially aged and looks more beautiful than ever despite her haggard appearance.
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