Movie Review: Deux soeurs pour un roi
By Jessica Reaves, Chicago Tribune Staff Writer
Scratch the opulent, gold-plated surface of King Henry VIII's court, and you'd find a snake pit of deception and lust. Scratch the similarly lush, artful veneer of Justin Chadwick's "The Other Boleyn Girl," and you'll uncover a spun-sugar confection, a lightweight production struggling valiantly to stand up under the twin weights of history and popular mythology.
Based on Philippa Gregory's best-selling novel, "The Other Boleyn Girl" tells the story of Mary Boleyn, whose sister Anne notoriously unseated Katherine of Aragon as Queen of England and became Henry VIII's second wife, an act that helped spark the English Reformation.
Chadwick, an established director of television dramas (his most recent credit was Masterpiece Theatre's brilliant, brooding take on "Bleak House"), has succeeded in a fashion: His controlled, carefully choreographed rendition of "The Other Boleyn Girl" would have been an unqualified triumph on the small screen. Unfortunately, it lacks the requisite scale and vigor to succeed on the big screen.
Sticklers for historical accuracy are forewarned: This glossy production plays fast and loose with the facts, abbreviating, altering and excising entire character arcs and plot lines. The movie is unfaithful as well to on-set consultant Gregory's 600-page novel, itself the target of attacks from academics who charged the author with recasting the Boleyn family in an unflattering, scandalous light in the interest of selling more books.
Given its reliance on divergent iterations of "fact," it's hardly surprising that the movie possesses neither the reassuring heft of a conscientious history or the tantalizing breathlessness of Gregory's bodice-ripper.
On the plus side: It's much, much better than the 2003 BBC television rendition of the same book, which featured leaden performances highlighted by what appeared to be outtakes from "The Real World: Tudor Castle," in which Mary and Anne narrate their own stories directly to the camera.
Another plus: Anne is played with steely-eyed grace by Natalie Portman. Acquitting herself admirably in a role that has in past productions devolved into caricature, Portman allows us to simultaneously pity and dislike Anne, whose unapologetic ambition and single-mindedness makes her one of history's most polarizing figures. (And Portman carries her elaborate, brocaded costumes with the ease one would expect of a woman forced to wear George Lucas' headdresses for the better part of three years.)
Mary, played by Scarlett Johansson, is guileless where Anne is conniving, and Johansson does her wide-eyed best to convey the hopelessness of her situation: Mary, like her peers, is a young woman in a man's world, controlled by her Machiavellian uncle and used as a pawn in a high-stakes battle for power. Johansson doesn't have Portman's fire, but her subtlety is winning, and she's quite convincing as an innocent caught in a deadly web she doesn't fully understand.
Eric Bana doesn't have much to do as Henry VIII except play the monarch as an overgrown spoiled brat. He is, however, awfully nice to look at (possibly another historical inaccuracy). Kristin Scott Thomas plays Anne and Mary's mother, mourning her powerlessness to protect her own children, and Jim Sturgess (most recently of "Across the Universe") continues his steady rise to stardom with a nice turn as George Boleyn, bringing subtle pathos to what could have been a throwaway role.
The set design is unfailingly lavish; production designer John-Paul Kelly creates a sumptuous, highly claustrophobic world for the Boleyn girls, in part by surrounding them with iron gates and latticework. Seen through the bars, the women, in their richly colored dresses, resemble nothing so much as birds in gilded cages.
Most of the problems lie in the script, which is surprising, given that it was written by the usually dependable Peter Morgan ("The Queen," "Last King of Scotland"). Morgan knows that screenwriters who take on historical dramas are expected to gracefully provide an audience with the information required to fully appreciate the movie and understand the characters' motives - without boring people to death. In this case, that means covering the basics of English politics at the time; the threat posed by France, Spain and the Pope; and the unyielding, intricate class constraints that defined life in the Tudor court.
Morgan abandons grace early on, dedicating entire scenes to exposition clumsily disguised as casual conversation. (To wit: "But, sir, the Spaniards have been mounting a navy for years now, preparing for a frontal assault on our outlying islands. And Spain is a Catholic country, which means they're supported by the Pope, who is ticked off at King Henry for dumping his first wife, who was a Spaniard herself, which means ...")
Anne Boleyn enjoys cult status among historians, feminists and Anglophiles. And no wonder: She was famously beautiful, famously willful, famously cunning - and famously beheaded. Her short, tragic, controversial life has inspired piles of movies, television shows and mini-series. Sadly, none, including this latest entry, tell her story with the nuance and intelligence it deserves.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic elements, sexual content and some violent images).
Running time: 2:00.
Starring: Natalie Portman (Anne); Scarlett Johansson (Mary); Eric Bana (Henry Tudor); Jim Sturgess (George).
Directed by Justin Chadwick; screenplay by Peter Morgan; photographed by Kieran McGuigan; edited by Paul Knight and Carol Littleton; music by Paul Cantelon; production design by John-Paul Kelly; produced by Alison Owen. A Columbia Pictures and Focus Features release.