16 March 2008 | divadrummer
Sometimes the Truth is Stranger Than Fiction
A quick glimpse at the Tudor family line on Wikipedia will yield hundreds of years of made-for-movie material, but none quite as compelling as the story of Anne Boleyn. Pair a classic story with airy language, beautiful sets and costumes, and some A-list names and you have Oscar magic in the making. Right? Well, not always. We've seen it before and we're not necessarily impressed with royalty anymore. The Other Boleyn Girl offers new perspectives and dramatic angles on the saga of wives that is Henry VIII's legacy, but nearly drowns in melodrama.
And it's not entirely the movie's fault. Boleyn Girl follows the story of both Anne (Natalie Portman) and Mary (Scarlett Johansson) Boleyn and their relationship with the English court. King Henry VIII (Eric Bana) has trouble producing a male heir, so the Boleyn family offers their daughter Anne to bed. When Henry has a hunting accident due to Anne's carelessness, he is nursed and subsequently charmed by innocent Mary. But Mary is already married, so the King promotes her husband and sends the couple to court where he can meet with Mary whenever he pleases. Mary falls in love with Henry and becomes his mistress. Anne, the elder sister, is scorned by what she believes is her sister's ultimate betrayal, and plots revenge. The two continue on in these roles for some time, swapping places in bed with Henry and spurting out babies while their relatives egg them on. This isn't quite how things went down in reality, but the changes are minor and seem necessary to condense the timeline and create at least one sympathetic character.
The Other Boleyn Girl fares best when it's exploring the relationship between Anne and Mary. This isn't the first story of sister rivalry, but the dynamic between Anne and Mary is extraordinarily well-played. Their previous roles and their public images make Portman and Johansson perfect fits. We believe Portman to be intelligent and coy, and Johansson to be naive and desired. More - we believe these roles might be easily reversed. As sisters, their relationship is deeply disturbing: they love each other, they hate each other, they're unable to escape the expectations placed upon them by their family. As an older sister (with an admittedly not-as-screwed-up relationship), I found this portrayal very realistic - rich with emotion and complex meaning.
I wish I could say the rest of the movie was as artful. There's constant allusion and foreshadowing to the Boleyn demise through use of visual and editing metaphors. If some details were twisted, other details might have been cut out - too many tear-filled scenes means that this eventually feels like a soap opera. At one point in the movie, Anne is sent off to France and comes back wearing a very distracting "B" charm, which she sports until the end of the movie. When I finally finished inventing what else "B" might stand for (besides Boleyn, there are plenty of other fits), I wondered about Anne's character. She's now praised as being changed and thus back in play, but I don't see it - she was smart and ambitious before, and only gained a bit of wit during her trip to France - certainly not the drastic change everyone seemed to be making it out to be. There are some very poorly done scenes where supporting cast spell out the politics of the situation for you. This is a little condescending and probably unnecessary, if not repetitive. The costumes are beautiful, but the matching dresses become unbelievable and even plain in places. PETA must have a field day with this movie and its use of fur and meat. You won't get to see Scarlett Johansson naked in this movie, in case you were wondering - just lots of fuzzy sex montages, weirdly full of backlit hair and fur. Katherine of Aragon (Henry VIII's first wife) is given some of the most powerful lines in the movie, but they're delivered with such woodenness that my disappointment must be made known.
The Other Boleyn Girl could be so much more. As a hyper-dramatic costume flick, it does stand out. There's more than meets your eye, and the costarring performances are not to be missed. There's a lot of material to cover in this story, but a simplified script would have helped keep this film farther away from melodrama. Especially with a true story as wild as this, there's not a lot that needs to be changed or added to grip the viewer. Any embellishments verge on destroying believability and creating situations we can't relate to.