“The Other Boleyn Girl”

Audiences don’t go to period costume dramas about famous people for absolute historical accuracy, but most of us, I think, want something that feels genuinely “of the period.” As with any film, we don’t want to feel as if actors are pretending to be characters or that the illusion we’re watching wouldn’t have happened without gaffers and lights and costumes and cameras and microphones. We want (most of us, anyway) to believe in a real-deal immersion — an organic sense that we’re literally visiting the past by way of Hollywood panache and a souped-up time-machine.

The Other Boleyn Girl, which opens today, is partly interested in achieving this effect. It does a decent job with costumes, sets and whatnot, and for the most part the performances are quite good. Its main order of business, though, is fulfilling the requirements of a period chick flick aimed at twenty- and thirty-something women who, its producers fear, might get bored or alienated if the real, more complex story (i.e., the one on Wikipedia or in the history books) was used. So it’s been boiled down into a tale of sisterly rivalry, loyalty and mutual suffering under the sexual dominance of ruthless men.
It’s not bad, I didn’t hate it, I wasn’t writhing in my seat. But I didn’t believe for a second that I was a fly on the castle wall in sixteenth-Century London. I felt as if I was watching a virtual reality revisiting by way of the editorial boards of In Touch, the Globe, Us and the National Enquirer.
Directed by Justin Chadwick from a script by Peter Morgan, it’s about the intertwined fates of the emotionally driven, vaguely slutty Mary Boleyn (Scarlett Johansson) and her younger, more ambitious sister Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman) as they sought power and satisfactions through their associations (sexual and whatnot) with King Henry VIII (Eric Bana). But it might as well be about the Hilton or Spears sisters.

Henry VIII; Eric Bana in Henry/Boleyn Girl guise

Almost every step of the way The Other Boleyn Girl sends a message of comfort to its core audience. “Don’t worry about trying to get into the world of 16th Century London,” it’s saying. “We know you’d rather not leave your own lives and attitudes and accessories, even for 115 minutes. So we’re doing everything we can to tailor this story to you and your way of processing things in the year of our lord 2008.”
And so it flirts with the historical accounts of the lives of Mary, Anne and Henry, using what it likes and discarding the rest.
I don’t believe that any 16th-century woman would have had Johanssons’s bee-stung lips. (Generally speaking, British women have had lips like slices of baloney for centuries.) Even if Mary Boleyn had them, I don’t believe she would have kept her mouth suggestively parted all the time (as Johansson does here, as she’s done in every single role she’s had.) She’s either incapable of keeping her mouth closed, or she simply refuses to do it, or her directors haven’t faced the issue. This bothered me when she made The Girl with the Pearl Earring and it’s been driving me more and more insane in the years since.
If the producers had any interest in casting an actor who looked like the actual King Henry VIII, they would have hired Donal Logue. They went with Bana for obvious reasons. By this same logic Steven Spielberg should hire Ryan Reynolds to play Abraham Lincoln. Why not?

The story seems a little rushed at times. People run into each other in the halls, say a few words, make a decision and move on. The actors have been told to do a lot of glaring and frowning. Johansson, in particular. I found this irksome. The film starts to feel oddly “off” during the last third, especially when the matter of incest is brought up in a certain third-act scene. The audience chortled when Portman asks Johansson, in a reference to Henry’s manner of lovemaking, “How was he with you?”
Portman delivers a convincing Anne, though. She has ample amounts of ambition, nerve, chutzpah. But I just rented Anne of a Thousand Days, the 1969 film about more or less the same story (minus the attention paid to Mary), and I’m afraid that Genevieve Bujold does a better job of it.
Kristin Scott Thomas does a superb job as the mother of Mary and Anne. It’s probably the finest performance in the film.

  • JT-Oz

    I don’t think there’s anything at all that could make me see this movie. Not that I’ve got anything against it – it just doesn’t scream “watch me”. I need to have the slightest bit of interest in just even one aspect of a film to watch it – and as it is, this ranks alongside the Fantastic Four films in the “why the hell would I want to see that?” stakes.

  • nemo

    “(Generally speaking, British women have had lips like slices of baloney for centuries.)”
    Meow! Take that, Brits!
    How on earth did Peter Morgan, the writer of Last King of Scotland, The Queen, and Frost/Nixon, get involved in writing a soap opera like this? Or was the script better than the film?
    I’ll probably see it anyway. It sounds like a relatively painless way to help fill my annual chick-flick quota for my wife.

  • “I don’t think there’s anything at all that could make me see this movie.

    Oh there’s something that would make me see the movie… specifically the NC-17 version with the deleted portman-johanssen getting frisky scenes…
    I guess I’ll have to wait for the DVD.

  • BurmaShave

    I’m tired of having this discussion, but when Henry was young he was fit. He didn’t look a bit like Bana, but he was athletic. Just look at his suits of armor in the Tower.

  • nemo

    Kristin Scott Thomas plays Scarlett’s mother?!? Man, I’m getting old. I still picture her as Prince’s young squeeze in that movie after Purple Rain.

  • A portrait of Mary Boleyn can be found here. The main thing I take out of it is that our aesthetic standards of feminine beauty have standards of beauty have changed quite a bit from olden days.

  • VedaPierce

    Johansson, Portman, and Bana just seem too modern. Although I suppose audiences may have felt the same way about Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave back in the 70s. Young actresses today seem to lack the gravitas for pulling off these period dramas. If Kate Winslet were to play both roles, then I’d could see this film working.

  • MilkMan

    Anyone who forks over money to see this deserves what’s coming to them. Which is why I am texting this comment from an non-functioning elevator that is stuck between floors four and five. I am not alone. There is an obese black woman in here too, and it sounds like she’s snoring even though she is wide awake. How do I know she’s wide awake? Because she just got done telling me that all day long she’s been craving cake, she doesn’t know why, and being trapped in an elevator means that as soon as she gets out she’s going to drive to this bakery near her apartment and buy three or four of their banana peanut butter cupcakes. She said this to me and all I could think to say was how much I was craving a coke, to which she said that nothing goes worse with cake than coke, and I can’t say I disagree. I’ve seen this woman before, we’ve shared an elevator many times, and I’ve just noticed that she recently cut her hair. Maybe I will tell her that her new haircut looks pretty. I don’t know how long we are going to be stuck in her, but it could be a long time, and I’m feeling very sensual and empathetic.

  • jenyamato

    “lips like slices of baloney”
    Nice, Jeff. I had to sign up for a user name just to say, well done! Funniest phrase I’ve heard all week.
    Your other points on The Other Boleyn Girl are on target; Johansson looks purposefully dazed and dumb the whole time, Bana is hunkily miscast, Kristin Scott Thomas is the best thing in it, and that just makes me sad for her. Portman – another overdone performance to add to her career.
    Worst of all, there’s too little sex, and the few love scenes are decidedly not hot. I, in the target demo of twentysomething women who’ve read Philippa Gregory’s bodice-ripping historical fiction, thought it was bad, hated it, and was writhing in my seat.

  • Filthy Rich

    Is what nemo said about the deleted scenes is true i’m definetely in for the dvd.
    and if you’re just teasing us you should burn in hell. bastard. 😉

  • christian

    Worst. Title. Ever.

  • Gabriel

    Worst. Trailer. Ever. as well.
    I love Scarlett Johansson as much as the next red-blooded male, but she (and they) have got to give the period films a rest.

  • Chris Willman

    In the newspaper ads for the film, Johansson’s lips don’t just look beestung, they look they’re having a possibly fatal allergic reaction.

  • Strolzy

    I will see “The Other Boleyn Girl” based on the following notion. Flat-fucking-out, do you remember watching Mulholland Dr. in that dark, sorta goth-y movie theater -I believe it was the Somerville Theatre and you can buy a glass of beer there now- and in the midst of this Lynchian unfurling, Naomi Watts and Laura Harring finally frickin-fucking kiss? Remember the clich√É∆í√Ǭ© playing out of actually raising your arms, as if victorious in battle, and yelping “YES!!” and no one in the audience laughed even a little bit because they, like you, were quietly blown away. Portman and Johansson (some would type Johansson and Portman but I’m typing Portman and Johansson) are hot like Harring and Watts. Read that again sans the idiotic parenthesised bullshit. Do yourself a favor, scroll to the top breathe in the picture that is not Wells and tell me…tell me I’m wrong.

  • JHRussell

    I took in a matinee of this film today. Pleasantly surprised that, despite liberal artistic license, the film stays fairly true to history. Too bad they didn’t take this fabulous story and make a fabulous film, though…
    To be sure, this is a costume drama, heavy on the costumes, light on the drama. Kind of a soulless film – the first half of the movie was rushed, there was potential at about the 2/3 mark for a great finish, then the ending felt rushed and bloodless, too…
    Portman has the meatier acting role, but Scarlett looks ethereal, not a day over 17…this film may put her back on the comeback trail towards her early successes in LIT and “Girl With a Pearl Earring”…
    Wasn’t worth the price of a matinee ticket, though…

  • Wrecktum

    Scarlett Johannsen always makes me writhe in my seat. I’m writhing right now just thinking about her.

  • CarloDennis

    nemo, this is actually the second time Kristin Scot Thomas has played Scarlett’s mother, after The Horse Whisperer about a decade ago.

  • This is a dvd rental for me

  • I’m of the opinion that Kristin Scott Thomas classes up most anything she is in.
    Not even a rental for me though…

  • I know that there was quite a bit of handwringing about Cate Blanchett’s Oscar nomination for Elizabeth: The Golden Age. But at least she feels from that life and time.

  • T. Holly

    Choose life.
    A story like this provides so many opportunities for snarky comments — about hamminess, or acting “chops,” or reaping what you sow, or being the wurst movie of the year — but they just won’t stick to “Penelope.”

  • The incest thing is what keeps me away from this movie. It’s creepy and horrible enough that at the time they’d marry off 13-year-olds and expect them to be sexually active, worse still that it would be with people four times their age or more. The fact that the movie itself, even based on just basic bloggy hearsay, clearly does not have any interest in or understanding of how horrible that would actually be… that superficial type of anti-historical assery is the worst.

  • K. Bowen wrote:
    I know that there was quite a bit of handwringing about Cate Blanchett’s Oscar nomination for Elizabeth: The Golden Age. But at least she feels from that life and time.
    For all its faults, simplifications and lapses into what Jeffrey would refer to as the “2008 comfort zone”, I prefer ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE to the flatter-than-pancake THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL.
    If one must see a Peter Morgan-written drama about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, rent the miniseries HENRY VIII with Ray Winstone (who could easily sweep the floor with the miscast Eric Bana) and Helena Bonham Carter instead.

  • The story seems a little rushed at times. People run into each other in the halls, say a few words, make a decision and move on.
    Just a guess, but maybe Carol Littleton (one of the two editors) cut a lot of scenes short to make them more bearable for the audience.

  • bradcl

    I recently watched Barry Lyndon then The Duellists. It took me about 15 years (duh)to realize that Scott was very influenced by Barry Lyndon, of course finally listening to the commentary on the DVD helped. They are terrific “historical dramas”, and way above the modern attempts that look modern. Does everyone agree?

  • Kim Voynar

    I’m a chick, and I have no interest in watching this film. I’d rather watch TWBB again. Or a nice, juicy documentary about … just about anything. Scarlett Johansson in a period drama just doesn’t do it for me.

  • T. Holly

    Perhaps Kim, if you haven’t seen it, the doc “The Business of Being Born,” at least the first 32 minutes of (through the explanation of the curse of Eve and Twilight Sleep births), which should be required viewing for all Americans, especially now that it’s newly added on Instant Browsing at Netflix and perfectly suited for viewing on a computer. Cheers!

  • T. S. Idiot

    How in the world was that Julie Christie cast in Doctor Zhivago? Does she look the least bit Russian? Doesn’t she scream Swinging London? And those bee-stung lips. I predict a short, forgettable career for that girl.

  • I think that a story like this provides so many opportunities for snarky comments — about hamminess, or acting “chops,” or reaping what you sow, or being the wurst movie of the year — but they just won’t stick to “Penelope.”