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The Other Boleyn Girl (5/10)

by Tony Medley

Hollywood used to treat Renaissance and Middle Age England with respect. Movies like “The Lion in Winter” (1968), and “Becket,” (1964) tried to be historically accurate. Even the movies that dealt with the specific subject covered in this film, like “Anne of the Thousand Days” (1969) and “A Man for All Season” (1966), seemed to be efforts at education as much as entertainment. “A Man For All Seasons” especially, used the actual words of Thomas More. I know; I read a letter in the British Museum written in More’s own hand that is word for word in the script. Maybe people in the ‘60s were just more serious and committed to truth.

Now comes TV director Justin Chadwick and screenwriter Peter Morgan’s adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s brilliant novel of the same name, a book so good I found it hard to put down. Unfortunately, they take a point of view I don’t remember from Gregory’s book.

I was initially troubled by Eric Bana being cast as the larger-than-life Henry. In the past Henry has been played by he-men, like Richard Burton (“Anne of the Thousand Days”) and Robert Shaw (“A Man For All Season”). But when I saw how they treated Henry, I guess maybe they knew what they were doing in casting Bana. He's just a women-whipped wimp. In one scene, Henry is bemoaning the fact that Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman) isn’t his queen so her child couldn’t be king. She tells him that instead of sending his wife, Katharine of Aragon (Ana Torrent), to a nunnery, he could just annul his marriage to her. Henry looks puzzled, then gets a look on his face like something almost straight out of Monty Python, like he's thinking, “By George, why didn’t I think of that!” Well, he doesn’t actually say that, but that’s what it looks like he's thinking. So Chadwick and Morgan are telling us to forget all that we have been led to believe. It wasn’t Henry’s plan to leave the Roman Catholic Church and confiscate all of its property in England. It was all Anne’s idea!

The book was so much about Anne's sister, Mary (Scarlett Johansson), that it is told in the first person. And that first person is Mary, not Anne. Anne was just a peripheral character, although we do learn what happens to Anne through Mary’s eyes. But not in this film. In this film Mary is the first part of the film; Anne is the second part.

There are some really silly scenes. In two of them, Mary takes off on horses in the middle of the night to travel to who knows where…alone! Sure, here’s a high born lady who was the King’s girlfriend, and she’s going out alone in 1530s England. Folks, if you think that things are dangerous in Baghdad or Detroit today, they are walks in the park compared with what life was like in 16th Century England. The idea of a Lady of the Court going anywhere through the countryside on a horse alone in the middle of the night is preposterous.

Anne was described by an Italian who met her in 1622 as “not one of the handsomest women in the world.” One historian compiled all the accounts of her physical appearance and concluded, “She was never described as a great beauty, but even those who loathed her admitted that she had a dramatic allure. Her dark complexion and black hair gave her an exotic aura in a culture that saw milk-white paleness as essential to beauty. Her eyes were especially striking: 'black and beautiful' wrote one contemporary, while another averred they were 'always most attractive', and that she 'well knew how to use them with effect'.” But, hey, this is Hollywood! So Anne is played by the gorgeous Portman, who could make almost any man’s heart flip.

Johansson and Portman give good, bodice-ripping performances, but the best acting in the movie belongs to Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays their mom, Lady Elizabeth Boleyn. It takes a lot to steal scenes from attractive stars like Johansson, Portman, and Bana, but Thomas does it by giving a dead-on portrayal of a mother who sees her daughters grotesquely manipulated by a scheming uncle, The Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey), and weak father, Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance). Morrissey and Rylance also give good performances.

The movie is also silent about Anne’s diplomatic accomplishments, as was the book. But the book was about Mary. This movie is more about Anne. To give her the credit she deserves, why not show the power she had, including her influence in the appointments of people like Thomas Cramner as Archbishop of Canterbury and Thomas Cromwell as Henry’s trusted advisor? But if you were to believe this movie, the marriage was doomed almost from day 1 with Henry becoming more and more remote from her. My advice, don’t believe it. This is little more than a soap opera, although it does have Anne giving the actual speech she gave just before she was beheaded. I’ve heard that Gregory was pleased by the film. After reading her book, I was greatly disappointed. But movies should stand on their own without reference to a book that served as inspiration. So if you haven’t had your expectations raised by having read the book and are looking for a pleasant interlude in Renaissance England, you won’t be.

February 26, 2008