The Other Boleyn Girl

other-boleyn-girl-poster.jpgstarring Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson and Eric Bana
written by Peter Morgan & directed by Justin Chadwick
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content and some violent images.

The year is 1520. Henry VIII (Bana) is king of England, and his queen’s failure to provide him with a male heir has left him feeling edgy and insecure. In the midst of this volatile and dangerous atmosphere at court, the ambitious Boleyn family makes a play for wealth and influence by shoving their two very different daughters, Anne (Portman) and Mary (Johansson), into the king’s path. Based on the Philippa Gregory novel of the same title.

Now, clearly no one should be going to see this movie in order watch historical events depicted accurately. It is fairly obvious that many elements of both the novel and the film are either highly speculative or purely fabricated. Then again, introducing speculation at points where history is largely silent or unclear keeps things interesting. Everyone knows what actually happened to Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, so something has to keep our attention in a 2-hour rehash of their story. The various devices work admirably.

Then, too, there is the question of glamour. If centuries-old portraits are to be trusted (and they are, after all, all that we have), these actors look nothing like the people they are portraying. (Eric Bana in particular seems like an odd casting choice from the resemblance perspective.) They are far too attractive, for one thing. But as some of my professors used to say (the ones teaching the literature of the period, not the history professors, of course), these people were the celebrities of their day. Some things never change, and people then were just as fascinated with the intrigues and scandals of the rich and powerful as they are now. Why else would we still have these stories to tell, all these centuries later?

So, The Other Boleyn Girl is not by any means accurate in its depiction of the reality of its setting, but perhaps it is more faithful in its translation of the spirit of those times into terms that modern audiences have no difficulty understanding. I should think we can trust screenwriter Peter Morgan (who previously scripted a multi-part documentary on Henry VIII for British television, and was nominated for an Oscar just last year for The Queen) at least that far. In my book, at least, the film qualifies as good historical fiction simply by virtue of the fact that it is almost certain to inspire its audience to conduct at least some cursory further research into its subject on their own.

I suppose I have said very little about the movie itself at this point. On the one hand, there’s not a great deal of value to be said by way of a review. The story, as I’ve noted, is familiar; an old favorite. The actors, again, are famous and good-looking. If these elements appeal, then by all means go see it. You’ll get your money’s worth. The Other Boleyn Girl delivers exactly what it promises to deliver: a guilty soap-opera pleasure that feels more cerebral than a “Desperate Housewives” episode without sinking to the level of softcore tabloid sleaze employed by Showtime’s ongoing “The Tudors” (which, oddly, has another Natalie–Natalie Dormer–as Anne Boleyn).

But I’ll give you what you came for. Bana, Portman and Johansson are quite good. They even occasionally manage to let us forget, if only for a few seconds, that they are Bana, Portman and Johansson. Plus, it is always enjoyable to take in an opulently-detailed historical scene (particularly when one is too ignorant to catch errors), and this one is particularly gorgeous. Those costumes . . . wow. They’re great. Enough said.

Integrated a bit more seamlessly into the tapestry than the headline stars are a rather strong supporting cast. Ana Torrent as Katherine is simply fantastic (making full use of her few minutes of screentime), and David Morrissey as the Duke of Norfolk (uncle to the Boleyn girls) is quite good. However, there are many others as well. Kristin Scott Thomas, as the girls’ mother, also has some excellent material to work with. Her constant willingness to question her husband and brother’s single-minded commitment to acquiring influence at court over the safety and happiness of their family is one of the film’s worthiest elements. The cost of that commitment, of course, is tragically apparent by the end, and Elizabeth Boleyn makes it difficult to forget that these are the consequences of personal choices. Key line: “When did ambition become a virtue rather than a sin?”

In the end, the life of Henry VIII, and particularly this episode, has been dramatized in countless films already. Here is another one. Some, like the excellent and Oscar-winning adaptation of A Man for All Seasons, have been quite memorable. Most, less so. And if this latest vignette is more likely to fall in the latter category than the former, it does at least provide a more than mildly diverting visit to the 16th century by way of the 20th.

~ by Jared on February 29, 2008.

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