Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

2008. 115 min. PG-13 - adult situations, kinda
IMDB says...Two sisters contend for the affection of King Henry VIII.

The 73rd Virgin says... Spoilers below. But I’m guessing you wouldn’t be watching if you didn’t know how it all ends. Based on a novel by Philippa Gregory, which I’ve never read, although seemingly every female I know, has.

Wikipedia can take the fun out of historical drama. It’s not Anne Boleyn - Vampire Hunter, but the revisionism just wears me down.

This is visually sumptuous, which isn’t that impressive in this day and age, and everything looks really, really clean. But the costumes are great and seem to be period-appropriate, based on the ghastly paintings of the day. It appears to have been made primarily with fans of the novel in mind. It also appears to have failed to make a profit.

Americans Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn and Scarlett Johansson as her sister Mary are surrounded with benchmarks of BBC such as David Morrissey (stern but slimy as the Duke of Norfolk), Kristin Scott Thomas, and heartthrobs Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch in small roles.

Johansson is made for this kind of movie. She looks like a painting by Holbein just as she looked like a Vermeer in, “Girl with a Pearl Earring”. And she plays the part of Mary here with an innocent kind of gravity, but as capable of self-preservation. Portman probably has the more difficult role as the mischievous and rather unsympathetic Anne. There is no way you can read the history and think that she just fell off the turnip truck, but this is the first time I’ve seen her portrayed as a willing and helpful pawn of her father and uncle’s scheming.

Now, I’ve seen Henry VIII played as a dashing young man prone to excess, as a bulbous gross old man - although he died at 55 - and as all points in between. This is the first time I’ve seen him played as a big-eared, black-bearded Croation in Eric Bana. He doesn’t project any of what must have been one of Henry’s most notable characteristics – a very bright mind. Ageless Kristin Scott Thomas is very good as the girls' mother.

Near the end, Screenwriter Peter Morgan and Portman portray Anne as a pitiful kind of cornered animal scrambling for a way out, and she’s pretty effective.

So what’s my problem? Aside from Bana? We know that despite the presentation of sister Mary as a virginal innocent in love with her callow first husband, she had, in fact, already been knocking boots with the King of France for 4 years, before she birthed two of Henry’s unacknowledged children. And we know that Mary did not, in fact, raise Henry’s eventual successor, Elizabeth I, as the end credits so portentously suggest.

Thomas Cromwell just kind of flutters into view and back out again. We only know who he is if we care enough to research it. That’s bad historical fiction.

Near the end, Mary rides breathlessly away from London – no escort – right, to save her own skin, when in fact Henry and Anne more or less kicked her out of town after she married beneath her station. Then she rides breathlessly back to London – no escort – right, to try to save Anne’s skin, when we know in fact she was smart enough to not be anywhere near the place when the heads started coming off.

Strangely, the one useful feminist message that might be extracted from this movie - when your looks are blown then it’s finally time to settle down with the nice guy who can put up with you - is passed over.  The charismatic Redmayne is wasted in the role of Mary’s kindly and sincere second husband, with whom in reality she found a bit of happiness.

It’s only a novel, after all, and I shouldn’t get my short clothes knotted-up in the devil’s playground over accuracy, but the fiction here just isn’t that interesting.

And none of this really ever needs to be done again.
FWIW IMO the best Henry VIII is 2003’s PBS Masterpiece Theater version, also scripted by Peter Morgan, with Ray Winstone as the sharp, ruthless, and self-aware king with a clear fear for his immortal soul, overridden by his baser needs. Helena Bonham Carter was quite good as Anne.

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