Doodad Kind of Town

"The Other Boleyn Girl"
March 2, 2008, 6:39 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

“The Other Boleyn Girl” wouldn’t have been my first choice for weekend multiplex viewing, but I succumbed to peer pressure. And apparently, I was alone in my skepticism, because our huge, stadium-style auditorium was nearly sold out on Saturday night.

We were, in fact, forced to sit in the third row of the front/floor section. And that meant the movie would have to be twice as entertaining as usual, in order for me to get the past the discomfort in my neck from craning to look up at the way-too-close screen.

“The Other Boleyn Girl” did eventually engage me enough to get me past my physical discomfort. But it took awhile.

I felt like we were off to a bad start when, in the opening scene, Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) sums up his younger daughter’s marriage prospects thus: “It takes more than fair looks and a kind heart to get ahead in the world.”

I’m no historian, but I’m fairly sure that phrases like “getting ahead in the world” (with its suggestion of a “rat race” and “climbing the corporate ladder”) were not in the common parlance of the early 16th century. That led to my first eye-roll of the evening, although I will admit it was a bit nit-picky of me. “Getting ahead” (in the sense that we understand it) might not have been on the agenda in the 1530s, but gaining power and prestige through marrying one’s daughters to men of wealth and influence was certainly a concern for some noblemen.

And that’s what this film is all about – men using their womenfolk as pawns in the quest for power. The machinations of Boleyn and his scheming brother-in-law, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morissey) are particularly offensive to modern sensibilities. It’s the Duke’s plan to offer Boleyn’s elder daughter, Anne (Natalie Portman) as a mistress for Henry VIII, who is unhappy in his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Doesn’t sound like a plum assignment to me, but Anne is assured that she will be provided a suitable husband when the king tires of her, plus the Boleyn clan will get in good with the man on the throne. Well, what girl could refuse that?

Anne willingly acquiesces to her uncle’s plan once she lays eyes on the hot, young monarch (Eric Bana). But after she inadvertently offends him, Henry takes a shine to her to her younger sister, Mary, (Scarlett Johansson), a shy, compliant newlywed. It’s Mary then – and not Anne – who is summoned to court to keep the king happy (Mary’s husband is sent off somewhere to keep him out of the way), and the entire Boleyn clan accompanies her. Mary truly loves Henry, and even bears him a son. But during her confinement, Henry gets bored and his attentions wander to back to the bright-eyed, sharp-witted Anne.

It’s apparent early on that every character has a narrowly defined, stereotypical role to play, and no one is encouraged to venture outside his or her assigned box. Johanssen’s Mary is the Bland Good Girl, Portman’s Anne is the Clever, Saucy Vixen. Kristin Scott-Thomas as their mother is the Virtuous Worrywart; her brother, the Evil, Power-Hungry schemer; and her husband, the Spineless, Easily-Led-Astray F*ck-up. The one character who should have been commanding and powerful – King Henry – is just barely interesting. As played by Bana, Henry doesn’t have much in the way of charisma or vitality. He just barely perks up when one or the other of the comely Boleyn belles is around. You almost long for a Charles Laughton-esque caricature of the fat, bellowing monarch with one hand on a turkey drumstick and the other cupped around the breast of a serving girl.

Of course, there are historical inaccuracies. (Every costume drama has them.) In real life, Mary wasn’t the saintly, virginal one – she’d had lovers before her marriage, and was probably older than Anne as well. It’s also telling that Cardinal Wolsey – a major advisor to Henry and the chief negotiator for the annulment of his marriage to Catherine – is nowhere to be found in this film.

Those kinds of omissions are usually made to keep the focus on the love story, but there isn’t a decent love story to be found here. What makes “The Other Boleyn Girl” ultimately quite entertaining are the performances of the actresses – the men don’t give them much to work with, but these sisters are doing it for themselves. Admittedly, Johansson has the more thankless role, and, although her performance is heartfelt and touching, she isn’t given much space to move her character beyond the Good Woman archetype. (And though her ‘fair looks’ are praised throughout, she is actually allowed to look very plain.) But Portman makes a meal of her role; any sparks that fly between her and Bana are largely the result of her delicious line readings and her ready, wicked smile. Given a moment to break our hearts, in her final scene at the chopping block, Portman’s terror and regret are palpable. Almost single-handedly, Portman prevents “The Other Boleyn Girl” from being just another opportunity to catch a nap at the multiplex.


2 Comments so far
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I finally caught this one… the story seemed a bit lacking to me. I much preferred Philippa Gregory’s novel.

Comment by Nayana Anthony

i LOATHE this film.Why? 'Bad Girl' Portman wonders why her man is so rough with her but so gentle with her acquiescent 'good' sister.Moral = bad girls get what's coming to them. And just to make sure we get it – they add a rape scene! was it in the book? No. The BBC adaptation? No. Was it added… by men? Yes.And i'm a fella myself. Horrid movie.Nice blog though! Kudos on quoting a film i'm fairly obsessed with 🙂

Comment by wytchcroft

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