Boleyn for Concubine
Occasionally, a release date tells you everything you need to know about a movie. Take The Other Boleyn Girl ... please.
Adapted by The Queen's screenwriter Peter Morgan from a novel by Philipa Gregory, it's one of those stilted, overdesigned period corset epics we usually have to endure only at the end of every calendar year, during that brief window of prestige dementia when Academy Award consideration momentarily becomes more important to studio executives than turning a profit.
So what's a tony historical costume melodrama doing opening less than a week after the Oscars? If this thing was any good, wouldn't they have put it in theaters two months ago to cash in on the gold derby?
Of course you should never judge a book by its cover, nor a film by its release date. And yet it's no surprise that The Other Boleyn Girl is perfectly dreadful. Riddled with loud unintentional laughs and inexplicable filmmaking decisions, it rivals Elizabeth: The Golden Age as far as bodice-ripping, historically nonsensical lunacy goes. But at the same time it remains far too glum and uptight to ever truly qualify as camp, existing in a muddled unentertaining limbo.
We're immediately informed that there's a strain on the marriage of Eric Bana's King Henry VIII, as poor Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent) is having trouble producing a male heir, causing his majesty to pout angrily around the palace in funny-looking shirts with poofy sleeves, popping out his eyes like he's going to turn back into the Hulk at any moment.
Meanwhile in the humble country Boleyn abode, a plan is hatched by a nefarious uncle of meager courtside clout (Basic Instinct 2's doughy non-stud David Morrissey) to position his unmarried niece Anne (Natalie Portman) in the horndog king's line of vision, hoping to whore out the kid for untold wealth and a nifty new title. Her parents (Mark Rylance and Kristin Scott Thomas) seem surprisingly chill with the idea of their daughter becoming the monarch's latest conquest.
Alas, the scheme is derailed by the insufferable Anne herself, who turns out to be just as annoying as you might expect from Natalie Portman trying on a spotty English accent while working extra- desperately hard at being sultry. The king's bulging-mad eyes instead wander to the Boleyn's younger daughter Mary, lazily embodied by Scarlett Johansson's alabaster skin and pneumatic lips, here on display in lieu of an actual personality.
Double-crosses, awkwardly photographed late-night assignations and slovenly dialect work abound. Before long King Henry VIII is spreading his seed all over the Boleyn clan, and these formerly loving sisters begin backstabbing and bitch-fighting, while that creepy uncle dude keeps asking all sorts of weird, invasive questions about how many times his majesty was satisfied last night. Hey, wait a minute, is the movie supposed to be this funny?
Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson both started out with such promise, and yet these days seem increasingly, often embarrassingly adrift when attempting to navigate grownup roles. The double whammy of Closer and Match Point didn't just feel like two lost little girls badly pantomiming caricatures of adult sexuality, but the hyperbolic hosannas for both lackluster performances shone a harsh light on the creepy critical blind spot for former child actresses once they're finally old enough to remove their clothes on-screen. (See also: Christina Ricci, the later years.)
And while we're on the subject of squandered promise, why hasn't anybody in Hollywood figured out what to do with Eric Bana? A hugely popular comedian in his native Australia, Bana broke through with his chilling, ferociously funny turn in Andrew Dominik's Chopper, and has been cast as nothing but angsty, humorless brooders ever since. Is his another case like Alec Baldwin's, where we'll have to wait until he turns 50 and gets fat before Bana's allowed to be amusing again?
Shot in fuzzy hi-def video, The Other Boleyn Girl camouflages the limitations of the format by keeping the frames asphyxiatingly tight and often in shallow focus. Director Justin Chadwick (who previously helmed the highly touted TV adaptation of Charles Dickens' Bleak House) begins nearly every scene on a black screen, with the camera's field of vision obscured by a piece of furniture. He's constantly tracking sideways to capture the characters, before abruptly cutting to another ottoman-obstructed view so the cycle may again repeat itself.
I've wracked my brain wondering what such an attention-grabbing directorial flourish is trying to say, before settling on the idea that the poor bastard is just doing anything he can to create some sort of visual dynamic with a bum script that's nothing but folks stuck in dank rooms shouting exposition at one another.
"Twice Born" is one too many