Feb 28, 2008

On The Other Boleyn Girl

Anyone who was paying attention in 10th grade world history, has checked Henry VIII’s wikipedia entry or caught the first season of Showtime’s The Tudors should be reasonably familiar with the tale unwound in Justin Chadwick’s The Other Boleyn Girl, but surely it couldn’t have been this way. Perhaps England’s most chronicled king, Henry VIII was from all accounts a deeply intelligent, hot-headed, by turns loyal and self-absorbed, decadent womanizer of a monarch – the triple digits he at least approached in the bastard child category is one that contemporary stalwarts like Wilt Chamberlain couldn’t dream of approaching. Still, despite all the energies he spent of fornication, the man who put lovers, wives and philosophers to death in the name of self-interest and gratification, who permanently split England from the Catholic Church to marry and divorce whomever he thought could deliver a male heir that never materialized (despite his best efforts), as several histories note, struggled over his treacherous decisions. He was not a sociopath, but a man of deep passions. Made for movie stardom, Henry VIII’s legacy is as loaded with contradictions as any major historical figure and as such, is ripe for dramatization.

A pity then that the representations of his reign and the performances of his cinematic doppelgangers have been so underwhelming (Although A Man For All Seasons does have its charms). Perhaps even more divorced from reality than Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Justin Chadwick’s The Other Boleyn Girl, from top shelf British scribe Peter Morgan’s adaptation of Phillippa Gregory’s best selling novel, is overly slick, empty-headed, bodice-ripping rubbish from start to finish. From its sterile HD lensing to the largely unconvincing performances Mr. Chadwick coaxes out of his talented international cast, especially the usually robust Mr. Bana, whose brooding performance gives the man only paltry definition, very little about the movie, despite its historical underpinnings, rings with historical or emotional truth. What we have here is an old-fashioned Hollywood ménage a trois, a love triangle that never grounds the flare-ups, court intrigue, and generally over-determined, plot heavy naughtiness with anything resembling humanity, old English or otherwise.

Everyone seems to be working two of three notes in their portrayals here. David Morrissey as the scheming Duke of Norfolk and Mark Rylance as his weakling brother and law Thomas Boleyn register greedy menace and headless striver ambition in a pair of routine, thankless roles.

The supporting women fare alittle better. Ana Torrent has three terrific scenes as the jilted Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s beautiful Spanish queen who can’t seem to pump out any kids that “God doesn’t see fit to take back”, as she tells the king when petitioning him to remain on his throne. Kristen Scott Thomas’ lady Boleyn, who watches in futility as her husband and brother scheme to use the young, sultry charms of her two beautiful daughters Mary and Ann (Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman) in order to woo Mr. Bana’s horny, heirless Henry VIII into a dangerous liaison with one (eventually both) of the girls in order to provide the Boleyn’s political power, is perpetually dissatisfied with the folly of her men, but is able to provide little critique and is given even less agency. Such were the times.

Still, the show belongs to Natalie and Scarlett, who can’t do much to save it. Portman and Johansson don’t look much like sisters and they act even less like them. Portman has developed in a resourceful if not terribly versatile actress; here she’s goes from gentle, encouraging older sister to jealous, vindictive wench i far too short of a time, the film’s numerous ellipses stifling the character’s potentially explosive arc. Johansson, who has been largely uninteresting on screen since Lost in Translation, has less to do, spending most of her time being betrayed, lying in bed and crying for the lives of her doomed siblings. By the time Ann’s head rolls, we’re supposed to be moved, but the only place I was moving was for the doors. Neither of these actresses, both of whom have clearly exhibited their broad talents elsewhere, aren’t quite gifted enough to transcend the limitations of the material.