The Other Boleyn Girl
Starring Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana
Directed by Justin Chadwick
There has to be a compelling way to tell this story, I kept thinking to myself. After all, its a fascinating footnote in British history: How King Henry VIII, who broke with the Catholic Church to divorce his wife and marry Anne Boleyn, also may have had an affair and illegitimate children with Annes sister, Mary.
The intrigue, the passion, the potential sisterly cat-fights what didnt this story have?
But Philippa Gregory who wrote the 2002 novel The Other Boleyn Girl dragged her literary narrative through decades of redundant musings over the plight of 16th-century women who were used as pawns to advance male power to the point that Annes losing her head couldnt happen soon enough.
So how would screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen) and director Justin Chadwick tackle an adaptation of this meandering epic? By packing its plot points so tightly together that every bit of subtext gets choked out before it has a chance to emerge.
The story opens in 1520s England, with King Henry VIII (Eric Bana) still lacking a male heir from Queen Catherine (Ana Torrent). The kings close advisor, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey), sees this development as an opportunity, and looks to place one of his nieces into Henrys court as a possible mistress to advance the familys position.
With Mary Boleyn (Scarlett Johansson) newly married, her younger, more ambitious sister Anne (Natalie Portman) is given the task but Henry takes a liking to Mary instead. The family has what it wants, but Anne isnt quite so willing to surrender the kings affections to Mary.
In some ways, Morgans adaptation of Gregorys novel does prove efficient. He abandons entirely the character of Archbishop Wolsey as Annes adversary, focusing on the machinations of her uncle; he blessedly condenses the time frame so that Mary doesnt spend years lamenting her plight. Morgan knows there are a lot of particulars to cover, and its to his credit that theres never a moment when its not clear who all the principals are and what they stand to lose or gain.
There is more to the story, however, than keeping track of the players without a scorecard. Chadwick frames several scenes as though they were being viewed surreptitiously, or from behind curtains, lending the impression that its all about the naughty thrill of peeking in on the secret lives of royalty.
The fact that the film spends almost as much time on the soft-focus sex scenes between Henry and Mary as it does on Anne and Mary as Queen Catherines ladies-in-waiting suggests that Chadwick and Morgan dont really know how to bring out the fundamental gender politics of this story.
Like a high-school history textbook, it becomes all about whos doing what to whom, and too rarely about why.
That emphasis certainly doesnt help the performances to shine. Johansson plays the passive victim of everyones power plays, never capturing Marys determination to find a normal life. Portman comes across as petulant and vindictive, without ever really conveying her ferocious desire to transcend the limitations placed on female power. And Bana well, maybe this script and direction cant be blamed for his vapid Henry. He has been shrinking into his roles for so many years now, its hard even to remember the charismatic, hard-edged guy from Chopper. Only Torrent, as Queen Catherine, finds her character as she eyes the Boleyn girls for the first time, trying to re-assert her authority even as she recognizes that authority is slipping away.
Secondary levels, unfortunately, are in fairly short supply in The Other Boleyn Girl. As one might expect with a period drama, theres plenty of attention paid to the costumes, as well as to forbidding exterior shots of stone castle walls. But if all the film wanted to do was act out a Wikipedia entry on Philippa Gregorys book, it might at least have gotten more of the facts right.
Gregorys problem was not knowing when to turn down the commentary and let the story speak for itself. As a film, the problem is exactly the opposite: It grabs on to all the chapter headings and jettisons everything in between.
The tale may be a footnote, but there has to be a way to make it about more than just its own footnotes.