Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl and the drawbacks of pleasing a king

In the 16th century, in England, a cow-like Mary Boleyn (Scarlett Johansson) has just gotten married to some local nobody when handsome King Henry VIII (Eric Bana) visits with his royal entourage. The Boleyn family had planned for the older daughter Anne (Natalie Portman) to become his mistress now that the “queen no longer bleeds,” but their plans go astray when the king falls and knocks himself out while hunting on the Boleyn family estate. He wakes up to find the blank blonde Mary nursing him, and before you know it, he summons her to court (i.e., his bed), never mind her new husband.

So begins The Other Boleyn Girl, a histrionic BBC-esque melodrama adapted from a popular novel by Philippa Gregory that could have been called Who Will Boink the King Next? I can see why Portman and Johansson took the roles of the naughty Anne and the more ploddingly good Mary respectively. They get to take turns seducing a macho king and then act their heads off (so to speak) as things go wrong, England breaks with the Catholic Church, and everyone worries about the king’s inability to find a woman who will provide him with a male heir.

The director, Justin Chadwick, has directed some BBC television shows like Bleak House, but he’s still too busy learning his techniques in this larger production. Never one to hold the camera still, he loves to move the camera behind things so we always seem to be spying on the actors through thick glass, or behind bedposts, or around some peasants outdoors. Filmmaking textbooks recommend this strategy because it invites the audience to participate in watching the movie. Chadwick also likes to have the camera peek behind a door voyeuristically, and then glide back behind the door, and then wipe cut into the next scene.

When things get too static, Chadwick cuts to characters horseback riding, preferably on the beach with a lot of sun backlighting moody clouds. He’ll saturate a jealous character in a green filter, or bleach out a beheading in a white filter when I wish that he had focused more on the performances. He wastes Kristin Scott Thomas, who, as the mother of the two sisters, mostly grouses on the sidelines about her weak husband Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) whoring her daughters out to an “adulterer.” Meanwhile, Johannson gives the kind of bland performance she supplied in Ghost World. In that film, she also had to share the screen with a brunette, and somehow the contrast is not flattering in either case. It’s no fun to play the ethical sister anyway.

As the more feisty Anne, Portman makes the mistake of sneaking off to have a secret marriage that jeopardizes Mary’s prospects with the king once she gets pregnant with his child. In response, the family annuls the marriage and sends Anne off to exile to join the king’s court in France. Two scenes later, the Boleyn father wants her back to distract the randy king from other possible mistresses and “keep his mind on Mary at all time” when Mary is massively pregnant and bedridden. This plan backfires because Anne is jealous of her sister. So Anne seduces the king by constantly getting other noblemen to laugh at her jokes when the king walks by. I liked watching Natalie Portman turn on the aggressive charm, joking about the French king’s “meager authority as a man,” gazing at King Henry impudently, and returning his presents. She drives him into such a tizzy, he becomes “bewitched” by her, and we get some hot and heavy panting scenes. “Will you allow me to hope?” he asks, piteously. “Leave me,” she says, turning away, and pretty soon she’s not only fouling things up for Mary and the child, she’s also maneuvering to take the crown from the queen.

I was disappointed to see King Henry lose his head so easily (figuratively speaking), and the film is confused about its gender politics. In a way, Anne is powerful enough to cause England to break from the Catholic church. In another way, with all of its feminist pretense, the film depicts a world where women were easily exploited for court influence, but the film’s sense of judgment is not all that realistic or convincing. Things get increasingly histrionic as Anne’s skullduggery starts to backfire. As the storyline becomes too compressed, dialogue does little more than further the story, and scenes shorten. Justin Chadwick plunges his characters into shadow as the camera looks down from above, which connotes a sense of doom and fate. Henry the Eighth has several more wives to go.

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