The Other Boleyn Girl
|Natalie Portman||Anne Boleyn|
|Scarlett Johansson||Mary Boleyn|
|Eric Bana||King Henry|
|Mark Rylance||Sir Thomas|
|David Morrissey||Howard, Duke of Norfolk|
|Benedict Cumberbatch||William Carey|
|Directed by||Justin Chadwick|
If you’re going to start ripping bodices, you couldn’t rip them off two more comely wenches that Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman, the Boleyn sisters in the adaptation by writer Peter Morgan and director Justin Chadwick of Philippa Gregory’s entertaining novel of lust and intrigue in the court of Henry VIII. Portman plays Anne, known to history for her short unhappy reign as Henry’s queen, and to legend for her polydactyly (the condition of having six fingers on one hand, almost certainly a bit of slander designed to bedevil her reputation). The other Boleyn girl is Mary (Johansson), fair of face and limb, gentle of disposition, kind of heart.
“But,” says her father, Sir Thomas (Mark Rylance), “to get ahead in this world you need more than fair looks and a kind heart.”
A corollary to that, we (and Anne) will discover, is that to lose a head in this world you need little more than fair looks and a scheming heart.
Boleyn père and his brother-in-law Howard, Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey), are determined to advance the family fortunes by using Anne and Mary as sexual chips in the royal game of poker. When Henry (Eric Bana) descends with his entourage upon the Boleyn castle for a visit, they lead with Anne, the vixenish older sister (historically, she is thought to have been the younger), Mary having been already married off to William Carey (Benedict Cumberbatch, and how would you like to be building an acting career with a name like that?). But Anne is a trifle too spirited, and falls out of favor after leading the King on a wild hunting ride through a dangerous ravine, where he is thrown from his horse and knocked insensible. So it is Mary who is sent to nurse him, and under the spell of her gentle ministrations, Henry takes a fancy to the other Boleyn girl.
He summons the sisters to court, and finds a place for Mary’s husband among his retinue. Everyone understands how the game is played, and when Henry whispers “Tonight!” into Mary’s ear soon after her arrival, there is no mistaking his meaning. Mary, a good and obedient girl, doesn’t think of resisting the wishes of her father, her uncle, and her king.
It turns out that Henry is much better at the sex thing than William Carey, who is soon lost to the story and to history. Mary’s heart follows where duty has called her. But Anne is fit to be tied. She was the one who was supposed to be the king’s mistress, and she does not take well to her sister’s intrusion on her turf, no matter how innocent Mary claims to have been. A rift opens between the sisters, and Anne starts conniving.
The trick of adapting the rich detail of a novel into the storytelling constraints of a movie is to find a spine that will deliver the essence of the book without trying the attention span of an audience. Morgan, whose original screenplay for last year’s The Queen earned an Oscar nomination, finds himself less sure-footed in adapting Gregory’s bodice-ripper. One doesn’t mind a few liberties with history, but too much of the dialogue tends to be expository, or falls tinnily on the ear. In response to Henry’s skepticism as to how she proposes to stay on her horse, Anne saucily replies “With my thighs”. Other dialogue tends to overstate the obvious. When Queen Katherine’s baby is born dead, the stormily distraught Henry asks the doctor “Was it a boy?” The doctor replies “Yes. Stillborn, Your Majesty”. And the scandal that dooms Anne, the rumors of improper intimacies with a number of men including her brother George (Jim Sturgess), is here dramatized literally and carelessly. For God’s sake, if you’re going to commit incest with your sister, and she’s the Queen of England, close the damned door!
Chadwick, whose background is British television (Masterpiece Theater’s Bleak House, 2005), here gets bogged down by the sexual sturm und drang of the Boleyn soap opera. He never seems to find the flow of the story, and shows a regrettable fondness for a certain pan/wipe editing trick. And those responsible for the suffocating, overbearing intrusion of the music score should suffer the same fate as Anne.
There is of course good acting. The best work comes from Kristin Scott-Thomas as the girls’ mother, who lectures Anne that French women get their way by “allowing the men to believe they are in charge.” Advice more easily given than followed, apparently, since Lady Boleyn seldom gets her own way as her daughters are pimped out to the king by her conniving brother and her milquetoast husband. The other standout performance is Spanish actress Ana Torrent, who plays Katherine of Aragon with regal self-confidence. But Eric Bana is a disappointment as Henry, here seen as a brooding hunk, a sovereign given more to affairs of the heart than affairs of state. There have been some brilliant Henrys on film, most memorably Charles Laughton’s sly hedonist in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), and Robert Shaw’s charismatically swaggering Tudor monarch in A Man for All Seasons (1966). Sadly, no one of that caliber was around to pull the Boleyn bacon off the fire.
© Text 2008 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be