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Friday, Oct. 31, 2008
'The Other Boleyn Girl'
Letting the girls get on with it
Despite what Mr. Hitchcock had to say about the requirements of a successful movie ("Script, script and script!"), sometimes the casting is everything. And when your film comes with a poster featuring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson with come-hither looks and appearing as if they're about to bust out of their bodices . . . well, let's just say tickets will sell.
Such is the case with "The Other Boleyn Girl," a period drama that features the two actresses as sisters and rivals for the affections of England's King Henry VIII in 16th-century England. Based on the well-researched historical novel by Philippa Gregory, the film takes the oft-told story of Anne Boleyn — Henry's second wife, who was beheaded after failing to bear him a male heir — and finds a new twist in it, namely, Anne's younger sister Mary, who was also romantically involved with the king.
Director Justin Chadwick certainly scored a coup in getting these two actresses for his leads. But as to which actress should play which sister, that probably took some thought. Pure, demure, naive Mary, and desirous, seductive, scheming Anne; you can look at Scarlett in "Match Point" (2005) and think you see her as Anne, but then think of her in "Girl With a Pearl Earring" (2003), and imagine her as Mary. Similarly, you can poke through Natalie's career and find extremes such as her hard-edged lap dancer in "Closer" (2004) and the wide-eyed naif in "Beautiful Girls" (1996).
Chadwick opted to go for Portman as Anne and Johansson as Mary, and it feels like the right move. Portman brings a sharp, brash confidence — so recently glimpsed in "My Blueberry Nights" (2007) — to the role, whereas Johansson goes with the slightly sullen passivity that belies the bombshell beauty that has marked so many of her characters ("Lost In Translation" (2003), "Ghost World"(2001).
Rounding out the love triangle is Eric Bana as Henry VIII. While it may seem that casting The Incredible Hulk as a king widely known for his excesses (beheading wife after wife) will give us another bellowing, boorish monster of the monarch, Bana brings a far more nuanced reading of the character. His Henry shows charm and intelligence, even kindness at times, and yet when he goes quiet, we worry. There's a darkness and insecurity that Bana displays that is quite troubling.
Set in England in the 1520s, "The Other Boleyn Girl" is in many ways a prequel to Shekhar Kapur's "Elizabeth" (1998): Anne Boleyn's daughter by Henry was the future Queen Elizabeth I, but more than that Chadwick's film takes a similar view of the palace's cut-throat politics; it's the Tudors played as the Corleones. Where Sofia Coppola gave us the "girly" view of royal privilege in "Marie Antoinette" (2006) — where beheading was only a dimly glimpsed future lost amid a pink swirl of cakes and frocks — "The Other Boleyn Girl" has no illusions about power and what is necessary to maintain it.
It's certainly a shocking scene when we see Sir Thomas Boleyn (a spineless Mark Rylance) and his brother-in-law, the duke of Norfolk (a surly David Morrissey), coldly discussing how best to pimp one of Boleyn's daughters to the king. Their plan is to put forward the unwed Anne, but when the king takes a shine to Mary instead, her husband is none too gently removed from the picture.
At court, Mary must bear the enmity of the queen, Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent), but manages to beguile Henry and even bear him a son, but since he is born out of wedlock, the king takes no interest. Anne moves in, vowing to succeed where her sister failed, noting "a man's love is worthless without power and position." But love and manipulation is a dangerous combo, as she soon learns to her detriment.
The script is by Peter Morgan, who has looked at rulers behind closed doors before in "The Queen" and "The Last King Of Scotland." Like both Elizabeth II and Idi Amin, Henry VIII is shown as simmering in a brew of intrigue, shut off within his palace walls: Merely to express his desire for a woman sets off layers of intrigue. And like the young doctor in Uganda in "Last King," the Boleyn sisters find the initial exhilarating rush of proximity to power quite brief, replaced soon by the terror of being subject to a ruler's whims.