Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl

2 1/2 stars

With HBO having recently aired a Helen Mirren-led mini-series on Elizabeth I and Showtime entering its second season of
The Tudors (about the many loves of King Henry VIII), it’s safe to say that our favorite 16th-century Brits have become the hottest source material—on cable.
So, with
The Other Boleyn Girl, the question remains, do we really need to see the same royal family in theaters? I’m not so sure.
The director, Justin Chadwick, clearly thought that the combined star power of Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson would give the film its big screen oomph. But the two stars manage to show both their talent—and their limitations.
Portman, who plays the smarter, more conniving Anne Boleyn, is a beauty to be sure. And she projects the necessary intelligence for the role. But instead of coming across as a womanly seductress, able to besot kings and single-handedly change the course of a nation, she comes across as a particularly hot Bard co-ed. (You don’t necessarily believe she could bring a kingdom to its knees—perhaps a large frat house.)
Scarlett Johansson, who plays her naïve younger sister, Mary, is also picture-perfect in her period garb. And she can play innocent decency well, as evidenced by her similar work in
Girl With a Pearl Earring. But her Mary is almost too passive—she’s fair and good and all, but she’s not especially interesting.
Finally, the film scores a real dud in the casting of Eric Bana as King Henry VIII. Maybe it’s because I’m used to Jonathan Rhys Meyer’s campy, pan-sexual approach to the role on
The Tudors, but Bana is stolid and uninspiring. As an actor, Bana seems to only thrive when challenged. He was forgettable in Hulk (can’t WAIT to what Edward Norton is going to do with that bad boy) and Troy, but made a strong impression in Munich. Here, he seems to be doing the gentlemanly thing and letting his two female co-stars steal all their scenes.
Bana’s dull politeness pretty much characterizes the film. This is, after all, a work about lust and betrayal, about two sisters vying for the heart of the king and the ambitious (and cowardly) men pulling the strings behind them. The film should’ve been more of everything—more sex! more eye candy! more scandalous moments of treachery! Instead, it’s all a bit too earnest.
From what I’ve read, the writer of
The Other Boleyn Girl, Phillipa Gregory, takes her period novel very seriously, but most historians say it’s riddled with inaccuracies (for example, Mary and Anne were not close). If so, Chadwick should have just had fun with it. I can only imagine what Sofia Coppola might’ve done with the film. Her Marie Antoinette had just the right look—decadently over-stuffed and sensual—but was a bit of a drag in the story-telling department.
The Other Boleyn Girl a failure? Hardly. It holds your attention fairly well and, for those who haven’t read the book, actually has a fairly riveting final act (hint: pay close to attention to Boleyn brother George). But it plays like a proficient cable movie—hardly an insult these days, but not quite cause for a coronation.

This review originally appeared in Baltimore magazine

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