Saturday, March 22, 2008
Royal Scandal: The Other Boleyn Girl
Movies set in England in the first half of the 16th Century have a habit of secluding themselves in the museum-like interiors of castles and cottages, with proper gentlemen and ladies standing rigidly on their marks like sculptures while eloquently expressing themselves about whatever they doth please. But Justin Chadwick’s The Other Boleyn Girl isn’t that kind of movie. This much we learn in the film’s opening, which finds a well-to-do couple strolling down a tree-lined path, chatting comfortably and enjoying the sight of their three young children frolicking in the tall grass of a neighboring field. One of the kids is Anne Boleyn, one of the focal points of the film and a famously controversial historical character, but here she could be any child, chasing about with her sister Mary and her brother George like kids playing tag in a modern suburban playground.
That initial scene is an announcement that The Other Boleyn Girl, based on Peter Morgan’s adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s book, is a break from the norm – a breath of fresh air from a period piece that doesn’t have its corset tied too tight. I’m all for historical accuracy and propriety, but this approach is good, too. The film quickly leaps forward to give us Natalie Portman as Anne and Scarlett Johansson as Mary in a sultry tale of seduction, manipulation, heartbreak and lies that covers Mary’s relationship with King Henry VIII as his mistress and Anne’s efforts to connive her way into a royal union. Of course, all of us know how things will end for Anne (uh, badly), and history buffs know that the significant impact of her position as Henry’s second wife was to drive a wedge between the King and the Catholic Church and to give birth to a future queen, Elizabeth. But this story isn’t based on lasting impressions or long-term context. Instead it’s a peek into the love triangles of a king as if reported by TMZ. It’s a bodice-heaving melodrama – History Channel meets Telemundo.
I’m not supposed to like this kind of garbage, but I often did anyway, even as I was rolling my eyes. Sure, I scoffed at the pairing of Portman and Johansson as sisters. I cringed as their accents wavered. And I saw enough to keep me thoroughly confused as to whether Eric Bana (Henry VIII) is a gifted actor or a severely limited one. But at the same time I reveled in the supporting performances of Mark Rylance and Kristin Scott Thomas as Anne and Mary’s father and mother. I enjoyed the depiction of Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent) as a woman who sees her husband for what he is and smells her ousting coming. And, soap-operatic though it certainly is, I got a kick out of the portrayal of Henry as a pussy-whipped slave to his hormones, and I even came away wondering if that might actually be close to the truth (homeboy was married six times, after all).
My major quibbles with the film actually have less to do with its saucy substance than its style. The compositions of cinematographer Kieran McGuigan require us to constantly view characters around doorways, beyond bedposts and through iron screens so that our view of the action is almost always obstructed. In certain moments, the effect is metaphorical (creating mystery or distance) or practical (hiding the business end of the movie’s many birthing scenes), but just as often it’s a pointless device that winds up being over-used. Then there’s the editing of Paul Knight and Carol Littleton which is problematic from both ends of the spectrum. In the first third of the picture, scenes end a beat or two prematurely, cutting off emotional notes before they can drift into the ether. However, in the final third the action carries on too long so that the 115-minute picture begins to feel like an epic slog. By the time Anne’s second pregnancy results in miscarriage I was done with her and was calling for her head.
Thankfully the movie obliged, just like I knew it would. That’s the nice thing about history: unless Mel Gibson is directing, you can pretty much bank on it. Still, the casual approach of a film like this trades the finer historical details for a different kind of realism. Sure, the morals and traditions of the film’s characters are skewed through a modern prism (we couldn’t rally behind female subservience, for example), but there’s a humanness to these historical figures that many period pieces overlook. Instead of approaching the Anne Boleyn-Henry VIII saga as if it’s documented in an encyclopedia, accompanied by dignified portraits that don’t match up with the scandalous details, The Other Boleyn Girl unfolds like a tabloid tell-all or an undignified reality show. And as I leaf through my history books I remember that, well, that’s kind of what it was.