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.


Richard Bellamy said...

Though not a great film, "The Other Boleyn Girl" had enjoyable elements. Both Johansson and Portman did justice to their Boleyns - though somehow Johansson stood out more strongly, especially in her compassion for Ann. Torrent provided a memorable supporting performance. But I don't recall the scenes that went on too long. I just recall the many very brief scenes - as you observed - that quickly covered about 15 years of history. There were a lot of well-acted scenes - but no memorable set piece. When Ann rides off on the hunt with Henry - I expected more; disappointingly, we learn second-hand how Ann raced after their quarry and Henry took a tumble. Saving on a stunt double, I guess.

Anonymous said...


Excellent point about the hunting scene! Couldn’t agree more. With the saucy Anne’s comment as they are about to be off, she answered how she could ride unaccompanied with this: "I ride the same way you do, I squeeze my thighs." I expected we'd see at least part of the hunt, wanted more of this banter, to know what happened. Instead we get nothing, the view from the window of Mary and anxious parents awaiting their return.
The action and details that led to the "hunt" for each other's affections or passions would have made Henry's later return to Mary more meaningful. If we understood their original bond, both positive and negative, or the nasty twists and turns in the briar that she led him into, perhaps when she beguiled Henry to leave his wife and led him down into the ravine that split the church, I would have better understood his rejection of Anne-- after all, she bore him a male.

The parts I thought it lagged involved too many scenes on horseback travel repeated by births. I’m not sure if I rejected the travel or the births as a whole, perhaps the formula of this happening too many times in a row was a bit of a drag.

I loved the dining scene upon Anne’s return and some parts of their rather unsisterly, or extremely sisterly arguments. I was a tad disappointed by the one-dimensional character that was the Boleyn father. Meekly ambitious yet completely willing to whore out his beautiful daughters, it’s hard for me to buy the fact that the one responsible person who put the plan in motion was the Evil Uncle. I think Sir Thomas got a pass here and I was disappointed by the performance of Mark Rylance, their father.