Movie review by Greg Carlson
Streamlining the Philippa Gregory novel upon which it is based and stream-rolling a good chunk of historical record, “The Other Boleyn Girl” generates interest in the casting of Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson, two starlets who often make choices a cut above their well-paid young peers. Originated on high definition digital video, the movie boasts a reasonably attractive look in comparison with 35mm motion picture film. A prequel of sorts to Shekhar Kapur’s “Elizabeth” films, “The Other Boleyn” girl easily trumps last year’s “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” which traded a strong central performance for a stilted screenplay and a gargantuan sense of self-importance. The ambitions of “The Other Boleyn Girl” are substantially less bombastic, and the result is a workmanlike, if forgettable, period costume drama.
As Anne Boleyn, Natalie Portman turns in a strong and colorful performance. While Johansson’s Mary is faithful and naïve, Portman’s Anne is devilish and calculating. Portman manages the challenge of playing a character whose manipulative scheming shifts precariously toward the unsympathetic. When lashing out at her sister, Anne’s ambition can make her ugly, but Portman finds complexity underneath the icy surface, and she ultimately wins the sympathy of the viewer, especially when facing the executioner’s blade.
The movie is not without serious deficiencies, and chief among them is a blithe ignorance regarding the politics behind the couplings that dominate the action. In essence, “The Other Boleyn Girl” unfolds like a sudsy teen-focused TV show, turning Henry the Eighth into a smoldering, conceited football quarterback perpetually led around by his single-minded desire to bed every attractive female in sight. There is little that can be done by Eric Bana, who succumbs to a flat and undernourished depiction of a priapic monarch. Henry’s desire for a male child is merely given lip service; this king just wants to get it on.
Despite Anne’s iron-willed determination and sharply honed sense of self, “The Other Boleyn Girl” also fails to adequately examine the reprehensible manner in which papa Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) and his brother-in-law the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey) openly and shamelessly use the beautiful sisters as sexual pawns in a bid for favor, power, and wealth. As Anne and Mary’s mother, Kristin Scott Thomas occasionally rages against the ethical void created by the literal pimping of her children, but the movie certainly could have paid more attention to the ways in which gender impacts governance and the affairs of state.
The wonderful Ana Torrent, whose performance in Victor Erice’s masterful “The Spirit of the Beehive” in 1973 has assured her cult status, comes the closest to exploring the double standards dividing men and women in “The Other Boleyn Girl.” As Katherine of Aragon, Torrent radiates a courtly calm. Katherine’s inability to produce a male heir jeopardizes her position as queen consort in the Tudor line, but her long marriage to a philandering royal has given her a perspective unfathomed by the impetuous Anne. Had the movie shared more of Katherine’s point of view, it might have been more than just another screen melodrama imagining the lives of crowned heads.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/3/08.