February 28, 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl

Amidala of the Thousand Days

Grade: C –
Director: Justin Chadwick
Starring: Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana, Jim Sturgess, Kristin Scott Thomas, and David Morrissey
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Seemingly just one track by The Cure away from fully emulating Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, The Other Boleyn Girl recalls the legend of a decadent, yet oddly hunky Henry VIII (a miscast Eric Bana) and his dalliances with the comely Boleyn sisters, Anne (Natalie Portman) and Mary (Scarlett Johansson). Screenwriter Peter Morgan distills Philippa Gregory’s already historically-challenged novel into a tawdry, soft-core costume melodrama devoid of narrative cohesion or any moral center, headlined by a love triangle worthy of a Harlequin romance.

In effect, the Boleyns’ father (Mark Rylance) and Machiavellian uncle, The Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey), seize upon Henry’s dissatisfaction with Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent) to whore out their girls to the king. Henry ignores the saucy Anne to pluck the married Mary as his courtesan, than abandons her like damaged goods once he knocks her up. Anne is summoned back from exile in France to give beguiling the king another shot, and her finely honed flirtations prove potent enough to split England from the Catholic Church, annul the king’s marriage, and see Anne installed as Queen.

A menagerie of adultery, betrayals, miscarriages, illegitimacy, rape, and even veiled incest fails to amplify the themes of subordinate womanhood and sexual politics inherent to the milieu. The Boleyns never rise about their status as chattel, and the fact Anne learns how to temporarily turn her womanly wiles to her advantage does not disprove – and may actually reinforce – her limited social altitude. That Anne’s tragic fate is sealed by both her ambition and inability to bear a son doubly underlines a gender double-standard. The argument that Anne was a woman ahead of her time playing a game of survival does not jibe with the film’s depiction of Mary, who ostensibly achieves peace in her time by marrying a man, settling down in the countryside, and rearing some children.

Director Justin Chadwick spends the film’s final half lurching from one major plot-point to another – e.g., Anne’s family reappears in her counsel mere minutes after she reproves and banishes them from court. Throughout there remains the unsavory undercurrent that submerges solid performances from Johansson and, especially, Portman, each playing vaguely against type. Frankly, you would be better off dedicating an afternoon to a triple-feature of Anne of a Thousand Days, A Man For All Seasons, and The Private Lives of Henry VIII than this royal mess.

Neil Morris

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