The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) / Drama-Romance

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for mature elements, sexual content, and some violent images
Running Time: 115 min.

Cast: Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana, Kristin Scott Thomas, David Morrissey, Ana Torrent, Jim Sturgess, Mark Rylance, Benedict Cumberbatch, Oliver Coleman, Eddie Redmayne
Director: Justin Chadwick
Screenplay: Peter Morgan (based on the book by Philippa Gregory)
Review published March 5, 2008

A big screen adaptation of Philippa Gregory's bestselling book tells a heavily embellished account of the two Boleyn sisters, the infamous Anne and the lesser known Mary.  As told in the novel, Mary (Johansson, The Nanny Diaries) was, at one time, the mistress of Henry VIII (Bana, Munich) prior to Anne's (Portman, My Blueberry Nights) marriage, although the real meat of the story still happens to be the relationship that Anne would have with Henry the VIII, who would effectively sever ties to Rome and the Catholic Church in a way that would change the course of British history forever. 

The story starts with the first wife of Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon (Torrent, Thesis), suffering yet another disappointing miscarriage, unable to bear the son that is so desperately wanted to provide the next successor to the throne.  The king's advisors see fit to trot out women for the alpha male monarch to "seduce" in the hope that he'll be able to produce a male heir through other means.  Though they have their intentions on Anne Boleyn, whose family seeks to reap big rewards for having a mistress to the king in kinship, Henry sets his sights on Anne's sister, Mary.  The two begin an affair that produces an offspring, but it's a girl, so the search for a son continues.  After some time away, banished for an act her sister outed, it is learned that Anne has changed in her demeanor and attitude, and is now a prime candidate to draw the king's eye, which she seems adamantly determined to catch to get back at Mary, trying desperately to manipulate her way to the very throne itself.

Some criticize the film for featuring non-Brits in the prominent roles, which is a nationalistic criticism I remember being leveled on Memoirs of a Geisha for its lack of Japanese actors,  but I hardly think that this is the sort of gripe that makes or breaks a film.  A film is good or bad on its own terms, and unless the actors themselves cannot play Brits convincingly, I don't see what the fuss is about.  In fact, the best thing about the film is the Natalie Portman performance, which nails the scheming seductress and desperate victim with equal degrees of competence, despite a real lack of compelling motivation elaborated within the construct of the script. 

I say, critics needn't bother even mentioning the actors nationalities when there are so many other problems with the film of a more substantive degree.  Starting with claustrophobic direction of Justin Chadwick (annoying that Chadwick must shoot from behind windows and other obstacles, perhaps to give the appearance of eavesdropping), The Other Boleyn Girl is poorly paced, chopping down the real meat of the story, the political and historical implications of the affairs, in order to inject prolonged scenes of racy lovemaking, flirtations, and a ridiculous amount of shots of actors on horseback just for the sake of having them.  It shouldn't come as a surprise that Chadwick's prior experience is mostly in television productions, as outside of the famous and quite gifted actors, the development of the adaptation and its execution would suggest a made-for-Lifetime production (the BBC had already beat them to the punch with their own version in 2003). 

Chadwick seems too enamored of his big star cast to get them to work particularly well together, and is so enthused by the prospect of a real budget and less censorship than TV that he lavishes us with a ridiculous amount of political figures storming up and down halls with their entourage, hooded figures madly dashing about on horseback, and faux-lusty moments of seduction between Henry and his consorts getting it on.  If you're going to make a two hour film, why skimp on the things that count in order to pad it with eye-candy scenes that have no intrinsic value to the story except to titillate?  And if you must, why cut out all of these titillating factors (little to no nudity or violence is ever shown on screen) by striving for a PG-13 rating?

The costume work looks too stagy to be taken seriously.  When characters emerge from traipsing through the woods for hours with pristine garments that look freshly sewn together, it feels more like we're watching a parade than an honest depiction of daily life.  It's all in keeping with the superficial nature of the rest of the production, which barely delves deep enough into the necessary psychological explorations to make anything the characters do or say readily comprehensible.  When everyone remarks about how Anne is a changed woman after returning from her exile, and we can't really see why or what makes her different except her resolve, it calls into question the lack of contrast afforded in the script by Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland), whose glossy embellishments of history have benefitted greatly by good actors and solid direction in the past.  It wasn't much of a stretch for Morgan, considering he had just written a teleplay for Henry VIII miniseries just a few years prior.

More trash than treasure, I suppose that The Other Boleyn Girl might have guilty pleasure appeal to those who like soap operas set in different times and distant places, particularly those who've read and enjoyed the Gregory novels.  Outside of this, it's a hit-and-miss effort that's more seedy than sexy, and less sweeping than sensationalized.  Such a waste of one of Natalie Portman's best performances.

Qwipster's rating:

2008 Vince Leo