Saturday, 19 April 2014

Mary Boleyn in Film and TV

Above: spurned mistress (left) or harlot (right)?
Mary Boleyn in film. 

The elder sister of England's famous sixteenth-century queen, Anne Boleyn, Mary Boleyn was a somewhat obscure figure until the publication of Philippa Gregory's bestselling The Other Boleyn Girl (2001). Two film adaptations were made of that novel: a 2003 BBC production starring Natascha McElhone as Mary, and a 2008 Hollywood film starring Natalie Portman as Anne and Scarlett Johansson as Mary. But Mary has been portrayed in other film and TV productions - this article considers the differing portrayals of Anne's somewhat obscure elder sister, who was, very briefly, mistress of Henry VIII sometime in the early 1520s.

In the 1969 costume drama Anne of the Thousand Days, directed by Charles Jarrott and produced by Hal B. Wallis, Valerie Gearon (above, right) depicted Mary as a bitter, heartbroken and discarded mistress of the king of England who must bear the shame of bearing his illegitimate child. She offers blunt advice to her younger, glamorous sister Anne: "Lock up your heart, Nan". She cautions her that the king will use her and ultimately "walk away". This media portrayal of Mary is interesting, for unlike modern adaptations exemplified in Gregory's novel, there is no sibling rivalry between the two sisters, nor is Mary bland, dull and soft. Anne does, however, characterise her sister as "foolish" and appears to feel she has behaved stupidly with the king. Mary herself appears sensitive and intelligent, but deeply upset and depressed because of the king's ill treatment of her. 

Other TV series and films about the Tudor period and Henry VIII's six wives, in particular, did not feature Mary, including the 1970 BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII starring Keith Michell and Dorothy Tutin. By contrast, the publication of Gregory's bestselling novel led to unprecedented public interest in Mary Boleyn. The 2003 BBC adaptation of The Other Boleyn Girl portrayed Natascha McElhone as Mary and Jodhi May as her younger sister Anne. The film differed notably from the novel: Mary was elder than her sister in the film, for example. McElhone depicted Mary as sensible, alluring and loyal to her family. Ultimately, her sense and loyalty ensure that she survives. Her sister Anne, by contrast, is headstrong, giddy and foolish. Anne is extremely out of her depth as queen and publicly shames Henry at court. She decides to commit incest with George, encouraged by Mary, as a means of ensuring Anne's survival, but it ultimately fails. In contrast to both the novel and the 2008 film adaptation, the sisters' relationship with one another is not bitter, cruel or bittersweet. Instead, they appear to love one another.

Above: The Other Boleyn Girl (2003), starring Natascha McElhone as Mary (left) and Jodhi May as Anne (right).

The 2008 film adaptation, starring Natalie Portman as Anne and Scarlett Johansson as Mary, was similar in some respects to the novel but wildly differed from it in other areas. Similarly to the film, the sisters have a complex, turbulent relationship with one another: their love and closeness for one another is expressed at the beginning, when Mary confides in Anne on her wedding night; and at the end, in a highly fictional scene where Mary intercedes for Anne and visits her in prison (this never took place). As with the novel, Anne is scheming, cruel and driven by her own desires; whereas Mary is bland, unambitious, and sweet: in short, the ideal sixteenth-century woman. But the film departs from the novel's storylines in that the king falls for Anne first in the film, but rejects her when she humiliates him and seeks solace in Mary's company; Anne is banished to France in disgrace for her illicit marriage to Henry Percy (another fiction); Anne schemes to marry Henry and steal him from Mary out of revenge for her sister revealing Anne's marriage to Henry Percy (another fiction); and in short, the film is far more about Anne than it is about Mary. Mary, portrayed by Johansson, is insipid, uninspiring and, ultimately, forgettable. It is the hysterical, ambitious, unhinged Anne who lingers in our mind after the film's end. Unlike Valerie Gearon's resolute portrayal in Anne of the Thousand Days, Johansson's Mary emphasises her sexual appeal, but ultimately indicates that Mary is devoid of charisma, wit or ambition.

Above: Scarlett Johansson offered a dull, bland Mary Boleyn in 2008 film The Other Boleyn Girl.

In the BBC and Showtime TV series The Tudors (2007-10), Perdita Weeks played Mary Boleyn, the charismatic, pretty and sensual sister of Anne. In this adaptation, it is unclear which of the Boleyn sisters is older. Unlike The Other Boleyn Girl, in this adaptation the sisters enjoy a warm, cooperative and close relationship with one another. Mary's sexuality is again emphasised: she early on is negatively described as the French king's mare and she informs Henry VIII that she learned how to perform oral sex while at the French court. Soon after, she becomes Henry's mistress. Historians, such as Alison Weir, now doubt whether Mary really was the 'great and infamous whore' in France she has traditionally been depicted as. Viewers, while responding to Mary as a warm, sensual and good-hearted girl, are early on positioned to view her sister Anne as more mysterious, deeper, and ultimately more interesting than Mary. Later, when Anne is queen, Mary marries for love and visits her sister pregnant. She is banished in disgrace, and that is the last we see of her. This series focused less on the Boleyn girls' supposed rivalry with one another and more on Mary's short-livedness as Henry's mistress. In this sense, it can be seen as more historically accurate than The Other Boleyn Girl.

Mary Boleyn has not featured extensively in film and TV, unlike her tragic sister, but the few portrayals we do have of her are fascinating in indicating contemporary attitudes to women's sexuality: Mary's sexuality is her defining quality. After brief success in becoming the king's mistress, it humiliates and ultimately undoes her in Anne of the Thousand Days. In both adaptations of The Other Boleyn Girl, Mary's sexuality is bland and dull: it is safe, and ensures her survival. Anne's sexuality, by contrast, is fatally tied to her destructive ambition: it ultimately consumes and destroys her. In The Tudors, Mary's sexuality is neither dull nor bland, but instead depicted as an inherent aspect of her nature and encouraged at the licentious French court. Weeks' portrayal is ultimately more interesting, and more sympathetic, than that offered in The Other Boleyn Girl.

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