Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl

Posted By on Wed, Mar 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

In The Other Boleyn Girl, British television director Justin Chadwick, with the help of Philippa Gregory's inaccurate "historical" novel, reimagines the love affairs between King Henry VIII (Eric Bana) and sisters Mary (Scarlett Johansson) and Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman) as a Godfather-esque story of court intrigues, power-mongering and outright whoring. Showtime series The Tudors pretty much did the same thing last year — except that Henry, whose political actions have real consequences for England and Europe, rightly remains the central figure in the storyline. In Boleyn, the sisters, particularly Anne, who eventually became Henry's queen, are never given their historical due.

Because of Anne's marriage to Henry following his divorce from Catherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent), England broke ties with the Roman Catholic Church, thereby giving birth to the Church of England and forever changing so much world history. The profundity of this consequence, subsequent to the manipulations of the sisters' father, Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance), to gain political rank by sending them into the king's bedchambers, is practically offered as an afterthought. In fact, the earth-shattering break from the Catholic Church, necessary for Henry to finally get between Anne's legs, takes place entirely off-screen with no ramifications, except for a little booing outside Anne's windows.

The Other Boleyn Girl offers the illusion of a profound historical moment. The filmmakers reduced the story to how Anne, a pretty girl with lofty ambitions, became the queen of England for three years — not because she was at all powerful like her daughter, Elizabeth I — but because she knew how to cock-tease.

Boleyn's timeline feels rushed and is difficult to track. Maybe that's because of Chadwick's TV roots — he helmed many episodes of the whirringly edited Bleak House. He wants to give a sense of urgency to parallel Henry's paranoid quest for a male heir without really paying attention to how much time actually passed. The result is disorienting and choppy.

Mary is married early on to an adequate suitor to whom she'd been betrothed since childhood, while the older sister, Anne — who, in reality, was the younger sister — has been reserved by her father for a match that'll elevate the family's social standing. That opportunity comes when Catherine gives birth to yet another stillborn, and Anne and Mary's uncle, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey), comes prowling for a new mistress for his friend, the king.

At first, Anne, unwed and anxious to marry into a powerful position, is the ideal choice, but she's too headstrong for Henry. The tender Mary catches his eye. A deal is cut with Mary's social-climbing husband and, against her will, she, along with Anne, are brought to court. Mary soon births an illegitimate son and falls in love with Henry. By then Anne — whose wild ways have been tempered by a brief Paris exile — with no regard for her sister, tempts Henry, driving him insane with lust. He soon caves to her demands to divorce Catherine and break with the Catholic Church in order to marry her.

After giving birth to Elizabeth — an act that, like the aforementioned church break, is treated with no significance despite the impact Elizabeth made on English history — Henry grows distant and anxious to move on to another wife who might give him his coveted male heir. He has Anne convicted of treason and incest and beheaded. (Note the crime of incest: Anne actually tries to bed her brother, George, played by Jim Sturgess, after she suffers a miscarriage.)

There are so few characters of admirable quality in Boleyn's script that you mostly squirm with disgust. There's no tragedy in watching someone like Anne, whom you loathe, fall from her already low position. Worse, Portman imbues her role with none of the grace, wisdom or intelligence that might help presage what is to come in Elizabeth — though Elizabeth's greatness is given in a postscript as Anne's ultimate triumph. Go figure.

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