Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl Movie--A Review

Mr. Sweetie and I went to see The Other Boleyn Girl yesterday. Since reading the book, I have become fascinated by the people who were influential during Tudor times, and I had been looking forward to this movie for a while.

Let me save you some time. It is NOT good.

The first hint that this was a stinker came when the release date was moved from October 2007 (well positioned for Oscar consideration) to February 2008 (a time when standards are a whole lot lower), where it's opening weekend competition is Will Farrell's 427th comedy mocking the 70s, and Larry the Cable Guy getting naked in "Witless Protection."

I had read a number of reviews before heading out to the theater, and they were luke-warm at best. Even with only 19 review in, Rotten Tomatoes had it rated at only about a 46. But you know what? I wanted to see it, and the faint praise didn't put me off. But it should have warned me away from dragging Mr. Sweetie, who is not the avid Tudor history consumer that I am. Poor man--he started looking at his watch after the first hour, and really, who could blame him? It was THAT not good.

Shall we start the autopsy? First is the problem of the novel. It is huge, with literally dozens and dozens of characters and plots and heavily perfumed with sex in a way that makes it hard to dramatize and keep either coherent or something less than R-17. As a matter of fact, although the movie admits it is "based on" the novel by Philippa Gregory, I cannot recall a single scene that was not invented for the movie. Really. I don't think there is a single scene that actually comes from the novel--all that is really there is the fact of Mary Boleyn, and the alleged rivalry she had with her sister Anne. Everything else is entirely new.

Oh, and the sex? It's hard to believe, but for all that the plot turns on mistresses and lovers and wedding and bedding. . .there is very little prurience displayed. In fact, except for Scarlett Johansson's naked back, there is scarcely any skin displayed at all. Even so, the movie manages to be more lurid than the book--creating a scene where Henry rapes Anne, and we see her anguished face. Which is something I could have done without, and is totally foreign to the tone of the book. We also are treated to the sight of Anne--desperate for a son--seducing her brother, who cries at the prospect. In the novel, at least, Gregory had left that question ambiguous.

Second, there is the problem of un-Tudored American public. (Yes, it is an evil pun. So sue me.) How many Americans understand the dilemma of Henry VIII and his great need to have a male heir? How many understand that Katherine of Aragon was approaching menopause, leaving Henry in a very difficult spot indeed? The answer to those questions is apparently "not many." So, within a very few minutes, we are treated to the appearance of Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Exposition, who tells us all this (as quickly as possible) and tells Anne she has to seduce the king, have a son, and then their family will be untouchable.

Third, there is the problem of being a "prestige" film: with the cast and topic they had; with the costumes and extras; with filming at castles and royal houses--they couldn't be content with just lighting it like a soundstage. That's not sufficiently "prestigious." So we get everything--EVERYTHING--filmed in chiaroscuro. Sure, the Tudors had a lot of darkly paneled rooms, and only candles to light them with, but a ridiculous amount of acting had to be done with only half of the actors' faces since the rest was obscured by shadow. Which made the whole "dungeon-like" lying in scenes look no darker than the rest of the movie.

Perhaps this was itself an artistic trope, but much of the movie was also filmed through half opened doors, or from behind large shoulders that filled a third of the screen. I can imagine that the idea was that we could not see everything--could not know everything that happened. Plus, candlelight is Romantic--everybody knows that. Sadly, I felt more like asking them to bring in some more candles--they will ruin their eyes, trying to see anything in that gloom.

It turns out that speed is also a problem in this movie. Somebody made a decision that everything had to happen fast. You can just imagine a director summoning the cast and crew and clapping his hands for attention. "Now, people! We have a lot to cover here, so we are going to have to go fast." Lines are delivered fast. Scenes last about 45 seconds. The horses are always galloping. People are forever striding quickly, or scurrying out of the way. (And I have to tell you, watching King Henry and Thomas Howard stride purposefully toward the camera--with their ginormous puffy sleeves--it's hard not to giggle They look like Weebles.) People fight, then make up a minute and a half later. There is so much speed, and so little sense of actual time passing, that you would be forgiven for supposing that the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn happened in about three weeks.

It doesn't help that nobody ages in this film. Sure, there is an establishing scene of the Boleyn siblings at around 6 years old, but the next thing you know, that blonde preschooler is Scarlett Johansson, and even though the events of the novel stretch out across 17 years, nobody looks like they aged a single day. And just how likely is that? Sure, Anne Boleyn was no older than 36 when she died, and possibly younger. As portrayed in this film, however, she stayed 22 no matter how many pregnancies she went through.

Finally, there was a fundamental confusion about what story was being told, which meant that the movie ended up with almost no center. Was this a story about a rivalry between sisters? Or was it Anne's story? A character study, or a historical recreation? Or maybe a superheated bodice buster? Was it supposed to be erotic, or the opposite? Is this a cautionary tale about ambition, or do we see this as the precursor to the glorious reign of Elizabeth I?

In the end the movie tried to be a little of each of these, and thus became nothing at all. The tight focus on the Boleyn girls didn't make it clear there was much of a rivalry, since any rift was explicitly forgiven moments later. It did create a hothouse atmosphere, where there were no inconvenient national or world events to interrupt the wooing and courting and scheming.

The English Reformation? It was just a clever legal trick to accomplish a divorce--there was no apparent affect to it other than to allow Henry to marry Anne. There is no reason to suspect that there would be an conflict over the succession of the Catholic Mary I--the Church of England is just a way to spin things so a willful king to get what he wanted.

Rivalries and wars fought with France and Spain? No sign of them -- the king can't be bothered with world events when there are women he hasn't bedded walking around at Court.

Which is all such a waste. Natalie Portman has the looks and intelligence to play Anne Boleyn, and she actually manages to find moments in the movie where she is a human being, and not just a force of history. The scene of her execution is well done, as is her panic as she realizes her life depends on bearing a son. She challenges the king with her wit and spark in a scene in which she is all the more remarkable given how clunky the dialogue and blocking are.

Scarlett Johansson is lovely, as usual, and she is believable as a warm hearted woman making her way in a confusing world. The production values are high--locations and costuming are sumptuous and lovely.

Such a pity that so many remarkable ingredients were wasted.

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