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The Other Boleyn Girl   D

Columbia Pictures / Focus Features

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Justin Chadwick
Writer: Peter Morgan (based on the novel by Philippa Gregory)
Cast: Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana, David Morrissey, Kristin Scott Thomas, Mark Rylance, Jim Sturgess.

Review by Rob Vaux

To the gentleman sitting next to me during the screening of The Other Boleyn Girl at the Grove last Tuesday: I apologize, deeply and profusely, if my steady stream of giggles caused you distress. It was not my intent to detract from your enjoyment of the film -- indeed, it's nice to know that somebody was enjoying it in the way the filmmakers apparently intended. However, regarding your assertion that the penultimate revelation in director Justin Chadwick's overheated historical soap opera "isn't funny," I beg to differ. It's always funny when such seamy melodrama thrusts its heaving bosom in our faces and demands serious emotional responses from us. It's funny when grand historical circumstance is reduced to bombastic contrivance of the sort any six-year-old could see through. It's funny when a film of such ambitions is reduced to cheap sensationalizing, having seized upon every available opportunity to elicit a gasp from us and now finding its bag of General Hospital tricks thoroughly depleted for the big showstopper at the end. It's funny -- ludicrously, preposterously, over-the-top funny -- and judging by the snorts and guffaws from the rest of the theater at the time, I daresay I'm not alone in that assessment.

Remind me not to sit next to you the next time they screen Mommie Dearest.

The pertinent issue is not whether The Other Boleyn Girl represents serious drama -- because it most certainly does not -- but whether its Ren Faire campiness comes about deliberately. Do Chadwick and stars Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman genuinely want to give us a history lesson? Or are they more interested in salacious bodice ripping, presenting the story of Anne Boleyn (Portman) and her sister Mary (Johansson) as a sort of Sweet Valley High: The Tudor Years? Frankly, it doesn't matter. The film fails so horrendously at the former that your only hope of entertainment comes in embracing it as the latter... and as the latter, it makes for quite a juicy little dish. Good girl Mary catches the eye of Henry VIII (Eric Bana) after bad girl Anne inadvertently gets him injured during a hunting trip. Mary becomes the king's mistress despite her marriage to a feckless merchant in order to advance her scheming family's fortunes. She bears him a son -- the only one able to do so, as history has shown -- but cannot become queen and thus legitimate the child's position. Re-enter Anne, with a thirst for the Machiavellian that her sister never cottoned to and ambitions that her Svengali uncle (David Morrissey) could scarcely dream of. She soon has the king wrapped around her finger, spurning her kin for the power only a true queen could wield and passionate nights of hot, hot sex from the undisputed ruler of all the land.

Oh, and on the way, she engineers England's break with the Catholic Church, brings the rest of her family to ruin, and gives birth to Elizabeth I, who goes on to lead the nation into an unparalleled golden age. Wee tiny historical details which The Other Boleyn Girl treats as an afterthought -- delivered in a few terse moments and one ungainly lump of post-narrative text. Its true interest lies in the prurient personal lives of Henry and his entourage, revealing salacious betrayals and bare flesh as a means of enticing our inner gossip columnist. The world was always a tabloid, it tells us, and as a relatively obscure figure, Mary makes a good fulcrum for the naughty peep show that results. We can weep forlornly over the sacrifice of her innocence for familial pride, bristle with outrage as Anne steals her man away from her, and take righteous comfort in her eventual destiny -- a quiet life in the country while Anne and their brother George (Jim Sturgess) are executed for treason. The Other Boleyn Girl pushes all those buttons in a satisfyingly crude manner, mixed in with the sumptuous costumes and gloomy castle settings one expects from such material.

All well and good if you want a catty night of guilty pleasures, bolstered by historical pedigree and just enough skin to slide in under that PG-13 rating. Not so much if you're looking for anything else, however. The political schemes remain distressingly simplistic, while what we laughingly refer to as "character" is forced to squeeze into whatever scandalous revelation the screenplay has cooked up next. Portman feels at sea amid inconsistencies of tone and personality: now a petty bitch, then a loving sister, here a babe in the woods, there a politician worthy of Churchill. She can't find a reliable note to establish Anne's personality, while Johansson clings to steadier but much more simplistic fare in Mary's increasingly battered moral compass. I suspect we're intended to view them as victims of circumstance, or perhaps tragic figures weaving their tangled web until it consumes them. Too little of consequence emerges from the their carryings-on, however, to lift the film's overheated storytelling past tweener-level attention spans.

Chadwick slips a bit of feminist commentary into the mix, with women treated like livestock and forced to use their wits to exercise any sort of power. But without the gravitas attained by better depictions of the era, that subtext becomes as risible as the remainder of the film: another excuse for pretty people to trade barbs and look put upon. As sorority party filler or a double bill with the likes of Cruel Intentions, this movie can't be beat. Just keep it away from historians and anyone who insists on taking the shot straight: they'll remind you just how ridiculous the whole thing becomes. You need to be able to laugh at it, not with it, for the proper sort of glee to arise... and I never believed for a single minute that The Other Boleyn Girl was in on the joke.

Review published 03.01.2008.

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