Tuesday, March 4, 2008

'The Other Boleyn Girl'

Sexy flick tells torrid historical tale...
Sisters Anne (Natalie Portman, left) and Mary Boleyn (Scarlett Johansson, right)
are rivals for the love of King Henry VIII in "The Other Boleyn Girl."

Last Friday, I took a wonderful woman to a movie, and while the choice of movies these days can be a crap shoot (especially if you want a movie in good taste for mixed company), I'd have to say, her choice was a really good one.

Considering its lucrative love affair with English monarchs, Hollywood should start paying -- as well as filming -- royalties. If the Tudors and Windsors had a shilling for every movie about them, their exchequers would runneth over.

Instead, the big bucks and plentiful pounds are going to screenwriter Peter Morgan and novelist Philippa Gregory for "The Other Boleyn Girl," the latest, sexiest historical romance about Henry VIII and his most controversial wife -- plus her sister.

In Gregory's telling, and in fact, both beautiful Boleyn sisters competed for Henry's love and boudoir. But only one of them wanted his queen's crown.

"The Other Boleyn Girl"
  • Starring: Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson
  • Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content and violent images.

  • 3 1/2 stars = Very good
  • Web site:

An opening montage establishes their idyllic childhood, and director Justin Chadwick hustles us along briskly thereafter: Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) allows shy daughter Mary (Scarlett Johansson) to wed a local merchant's son but has higher ambitions for the feistier Anne (Natalie Portman).

"An opportunity has arisen," he says, deceptively mild and understated as always. Everyone knows that Queen Katherine (Ana Torrent) has long failed to give King Henry a male heir. Sir Thomas invites the king for a hunting visit, instructing Anne to "beguile and divert" him.

Henry comes, sees, but is beguiled and conquered by Mary instead. She, not Anne, is summoned to the court as the royal mistress -- without protest from her acquiescent husband.

The subsequent first love scene between Henry and Mary is one of the film's most exquisite moments, its gentle eroticism slowly rising to a sensual boil. Clearly, these two are lovers. Soon, they'll be parents.

Furious Anne is packed off to cool her heels (and improve her seductive skills) in France. She returns -- in costume designer Sandy Powell's dazzling green creation, clashing loudly with the muted royal color scheme -- when Henry is starting to get bored with Mary, just in time to tease, taunt and lure him away from her sister.

Talk about sibling rivalry. This is as ruthless as it gets. Mary has genuine affection for Henry but is banished, along with the king's illegitimate son. Anne has genuine ambition to be nothing less than Queen of England -- and won't sleep with Hank until he makes it happen.

An annulment is needed, but neither the Church nor Katherine of Aragon will cooperate, which leads to the cataclysmic break with Rome. Henry is facing the two most stubborn women of the 16th century, and England is torn apart by the inevitable intrigues, betrayals and beheadings to come.

Portman and Johansson are dynamic diametric opposites in their roles -- so good that it's unclear which one should be considered the "other" Boleyn girl of the title. Johansson's Mary is the reticent, restrained, emotional heart of the story, throughout which her stunningly lovely face is framed and lighted like a Vermeer.

Dazzling, high-spirited Portman, for her ill-fated part, looks and acts not unlike that other Scarlett girl -- the O'Hara one, as played by Vivien Leigh.

Rylance plays their slimy, despicable father in a nauseously low-key manner, while Kristin Scott Thomas as his disapproving wife fumes. ("When was it that ambition stopped being a sin and became a virtue?")

Torrent is tragically dignified and sympathetic as the discarded Queen Katherine.

Only Eric Bana's moody Henry struck me as wrong. No man, let alone this legendary absolute autocrat, would stay so wimpily enthralled with a gal like Anne, allowing her to withhold sex for eight years, right?

Wrong. He did. He was wildly in love. He wrote her love poems and songs, and sang them to her personally.

Morgan's script deserves credit for simplifying the tangled web of Tudor politics without dumbing it down, but he and/or novelist Gregory have taken several huge liberties with the (for the most part) historical facts. The author tells us Mary "chose to leave court and marry to suit herself." The screenwriter has her banished by Anne's conspiracy.

Worse, and more important if you care about factoids: Mary Boleyn did not bear Henry VIII's illegitimate son. His one and only other documented mistress -- Bessie Blount, by name! -- did so.

So much for pedantry. Director Justin Chadwick is more interested in pageantry, and rightly so. The film is gorgeous, though it wants to be more epic than it is. There's a bit too much bodice-ripping "Days of Our Royal Lives" material, while the great church battle gets short shrift.

Never mind. It's wonderful entertainment, if not wonderful history.

In the end, neither Popes Julius II nor Clement VII would buy Henry's annulment arguments. And when her time came, Henry's kangaroo court wouldn't buy Anne's. Her trial (for adultery and incest) gets about a minute and a half of screen time, hurried and truncated -- rather like Anne.

Definitely a movie worth looking into, seeing and remembering later.


No comments: