The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)
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The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

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There is little doubt that one of the most popular genres in the history of film is the historical drama. The audience already knows the names of the characters and the basic story line but Hollywood is able to ad drama to the history; a topic often viewed as dry and distant. Of course the one important caveat that applies to almost every such movie is simple; it is not history. Even the best scripts around will give in to the tendency to take what is usually dismissed as dramatic license; a nice name for embellishing the real events to make the film more exciting. The shame is the real story is more times than not exciting enough without these inaccurate modifications. They can take the form of either additions or even omissions. If you want the real story go to the History or Biography Channels or better yet, pick up a history book and read it. One of the latest ‘based on history’ movies to hit the screen and now DVD is ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’. Just in case you don’t know the focus of the film is on Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman) and her sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson). Anne would become historically significant when she became the controversial second wife to England’s King Henry VIII. While the film does make an attempt to stick the facts this is a movie and liberties were taken.

The Tudor period of English history has a proven track record in both television and films. The success of the recent Showtime series, ‘The Tudors’ focus on many of the historical figures this film is concerned with. There was even a story arc that looked at the two Boleyn sisters and their relationship to Henry VIII (Eric Bana). What was not concentrated on was the relationship between the sisters. These two women have been a topic of many scholarly works mostly due to their influence on the most powerful man of his time. There is also some controversy as to such typically mundane aspects of their lives as their birth order. Traditionally Anne was though of as being the older of the siblings. Recent information has swayed many historians to hold the belief that Mary was indeed the eldest. The story was written by Peter Morgan based on the 2001 novel by noted author Philippa Gregory. Ms Gregory is well known for her series of books based on the Tudor period and ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ was the first of the series. This story may have taken place in the 1500’s but it could easily have been ripped from the headlines today. It has everything that a modern tale of lust, deception and power needs to succeed. There is even a touch of incest thrown in for good measure. At times this story seems more like something on late night on Cinemax but these were in fat hedonistic people driven by power and lust.

Usually when this story is told Mary is a secondary character; after all it’s good to be queen and that dubious honor went to Anne. This is sibling rivalry that if not for the royal aspects would have made a Lifetime Sunday afternoon flick. Morgan is a very talented story teller and screenwriter. He has an illustrious list of credits that include ‘The Last King of Scotland’ and ‘The Queen’. Both of these films went on too Oscar wins for their leads and an Academy Award nomination was secured by Morgan for his script for ‘The Queen’. He also is familiar with the King here from his work on the English television flick ‘Henry VIII’. Historical problems aside, this is an excellent script that provides a rather deep character analysis of the sisters and the differences in their motivations for wanting to be with the King. Mary comes off as being more in love with the monarch than her sister. Anne wants power and the only way for a woman to achieve that in the 1500’s was too marry power. The fact that their father, Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) barters his daughters sexually to advance his own career is creepy but that was one of the prime functions of a daughter in those days.

The film was directed by Justin Chadwick. Most of his directorial experience has been with British television and his work on ‘Masterpiece Theater: Bleak House’. He does a great job here in keeping the story moving forward and holding the attention of the audience. Along with set decorator Sara Wan and costume designer Sandy Powell they capture the look and feel of the time. What drags the film down is the heavy handed and often forced narrative. The characters, while well written in general, tend to appear one dimensional in their presentation. Chadwick plays a lot with the camera and lighting. The movie was made on high definition video but the focus is pushed to keep the scenes intentionally with little or no depth to it. The frame is overly tight giving no room for the actors to properly move about. Frequently objects in the set dominate the frame pushing out the actors as the focus. There are also many shots where the camera moves in an obtuse angle; interesting at first but it gets tiring. There is natural tendency to compare this film with the Showtime series. In this case such a comparison is warranted. Both deal with the same time, the same people and events. In the series the pacing could be slowed down so the audience could better understand the motivations and personalities of the characters. Here this is not the case. It is strange in retrospect that a film that appears to drag so often is too quickly paced to get the message across. Chadwick is a fantastic director and I look forward to future works of his but this one just misses the mark.

This is a odd cast that seems perfect on the surface. The two actresses in the leads, Johansson and Portman, are on the top of just about every ‘most beautiful women’ list in the world. More importantly, they are also both accomplished and extremely talented actresses. They have successfully navigated the treacherous transition from child star to adult parts. Let’s face facts, this is a soap opera and typically men would rather watch a game then see a costumed historical drama. Having these actresses together in tight bodice, bosom heaving dresses are sure to keep the guys interested albeit not in the story. There is an obvious chemistry between these two women that translates in such a way as to help them connect with the audience. The problem here is both of their performances lack the depth of real emotions that they both have demonstrated in past efforts. It may have been interesting if their roles were reversed with Johansson playing the cunning and manipulative Anne and Portman in the part of the love struck Mary. They do present their characters very well but in many respects are working up hill in this particular production.

The DVD is from Sony and as usual they do well with the technical presentation. The film is fun in its own way but has taken on a topic better addressed before. You might want to check out the 2003 British television version and the Showtime series ‘The Tudors’ for some comparison. The film is entertaining in a melodramatic way but could have been a lot more.

Posted 04/29/08

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