March 17, 2008

Movie Review: The Other Boleyn Girl

Story: Implausible re-telling of the affair of King Henry VIII and Mary Boleyn, followed by slightly more plausible re-telling of the affair, marriage, and eventual divorce-by-execution of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. The story is really one of conflict and reconciliation between the sisters, and the king is more of a prize for which the two young women compete rather than a person of any depth or even interest. There is virtually no romantic element to either story; you never understand exactly what it is, aside from power and wealth, that either woman sees in Henry, yet you are asked to believe that they both, in their own ways, fell in love with him nevertheless.

Script: The story moves along very quickly; it attempts to cover nearly fifteen years of Henry's reign in about two hours. Because the focus of the movie is Mary Boleyn and her relationship with her family (particularly her sister) there is very little about the politics of the day aside from her scheming uncle the Duke of Norfolk's plans to pimp out his nieces to the pleasure-loving King in order to gain favor. We are not even given much of a chance to appreciate how the characters feel about Norfolk's wretchedly evil plan until the very end, and then it comes from a character who hasn't really mattered all that much anyway. All in all, an awkward script for an awkward story.

Cast: Brilliant. Scarlett Johannsen is the heroine of the movie, the eponymous Mary Boleyn. Natalie Portman is even more beautiful than her as Anne Boleyn. There is a point in the movie when the power struggle within the Boleyn family shifts in Anne's favor, and Portman does a phenomenal job of showing how she takes that power, learns how to wield it, and finds she rather enjoys the role of master of the game. Best of all, Eric Bana really looks like a young, athletic version of the Hans Holbein portrait of King Henry. The other characters -- Lord Boleyn, the Duke of Norfolk, and the girls' shallow brother George -- are all convincing both in appearance and demeanor.

Cinematography: Either the cinematographer or the director was very fond of starting shots focused on a column in some kind of all or room, and then slowly panning to the left or the right to focus on a character giving a speech. Sometimes the pan would continue past more columns, obscuring and then revealing the character. I understand that there was some sort of artistic statement to be made this way. But the visual effect was annoying because you couldn't see who was talking, and instead you get to look at an unlit piece of limestone. Waste of a perfectly good Natalie Portman, if you ask me, and an annoying technique.

Costumes: Spectacular. Tudor-era costumes are spectacular when made correctly, and these (as well as the hairstyles) appear to be entirely historically accurate as well as gorgeous to look at. The green dress Natalie Portman wears is inspiring prom dresses and bridesmaid's gowns across the country, and rightly so. But it's only the most stunning of a series of really great outfits that the women get to wear. The male nobles wear great costumes, too, with the brightly-colored velvet ruffles, hose and pantaloons -- it sounds ridiculous to modern sensibilities but we must remember that was the style and the men appear both comfortable and even proud of their rich, expensive finery worn at court.

Effects: Few to speak of. In ballroom, banquet, and party scenes, a very good job is done of making the lighting appear authentic, particularly the candlelit indoor balls. The dancing also appears authentic for the period, and the actors and dancers hired for these scenes obviously worked hard to recapture the elaborate and tightly-choreographed early sixteenth-century dance moves -- and in some cases, make them look sexy.

Music: Appropriate, orchestral score. Period music used in shots.

Comments: There are numerous historical inaccuracies which are quite jarring. For instance, by the time Henry VIII took Mary Boleyn as his mistress, he had already fathered a bastard son by another lady of the court. No mention whatsoever of this in the movie, which depicts Henry as without a son of any kind (who survived infancy). Mary Boleyn is depicted as younger than her infamous sister Anne, but the Boleyns themselves wrote of Mary being older than Anne. Finally, the movie portrays the Boleyns as holding a noble name but nearly penniless and therefore reduced to going along with the Duke of Norfolk's plan to pinp out the Boleyn girls in order to gain favor. Quite the opposite was true; the Boleyn family were less noble than they were social climbers and graspers, and they were quite well-off and well-connected -- Thomas Boleyn had been appointed King Henry's ambassador to France, for instance, and he took his daughters with him where they were quite happy with life in the court of the French king. The movie shows things a good deal differently.

As both The Wife and I are fond of this period of history, and have read both real history and other historical fiction focusing on these events, the inaccuracies were very jarring. It's particularly jarring to compare this movie to The Tudors, which we are working our way through at home, because the actors in that series look very different than the ones in the movie, and different (but fewer) liberties are taken with history in the series than the movie.

Overall impression: Skip it unless you really don't care about seeing a good story. I certainly don't mind seeing Henry protrayed as a monster; a good case can be made that he was exactly that although I think the real historical picture is much more ambiguous than the way this movie chooses to portray him. Perhaps a better way to think about this movie is that it's set in a fictional world that very much resembles Renaissance England, with some characters who coincidentally have the same names as some real people from that place and time, but otherwise should be treated as a fantasy. That being the case, it was not a particularly engaging fantasy.

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