Review

Boleyn for Concubine

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 5 | Posted Feb. 27, 2008

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Twisted sisters: Natalie Portman (left) and Scarlett Johansson share not only Eric Bana, but a career trajectory as well.

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.

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1. Sharon said... on May 11, 2008 at 02:33PM

“In my whole life, I've only walked out on one movie. This was the second. I feel like I should take a shower with bleach. Nasty and improbable and badly filmed. Any one of them would be bad enough. And the costuming was bad too.”

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2. Bana said... on May 28, 2008 at 01:54PM

“Negro, please. It wasn't that bad.”

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3. Nigel Bakker said... on Aug 17, 2008 at 07:17AM

“Yes, this was to say the least a disappointing movie: with the real historical events as exciting as history can ever get, it is unforgivable that a 21st century director and scriptwriter can't make a better go of it. The characters were as bland as the musical score; the complexity of the historical moment--which might have added some depth to the movie plot--is so pared down that the movie simply becomes butt-twistingly tedious. Poor Bana: what a talent; what a waste.”

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4. csheard said... on Feb 12, 2009 at 05:03PM

“LOL! LOL!”

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5. John Bell said... on Jun 9, 2009 at 12:13PM

“Caught this movie on cable last night.

While it's definitely not an Oscar-bait caliber flick, I didn't find it nearly as dreadful as the reviewer. In fact, I enjoyed this far more than the cited "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" (wasting Cate Blanchett prodigious talent and magnetic screen presence should be a capital offense).

Natalie Portman was the best thing in the film, IMO - she exuded far more charisma and sexual allure than Scarlet Johannsen who seemed like a bland, blank-faced cypher in comparison (the movie lost a LOT of credibility for me when it tried to convince the viewer that Henry EVER preferred her over Portman.)

Eric Bana is fine in a surprisingly underdeveloped role but, the usually excellent Kristin Scott Thomas just seems wasted here.

OT: Why does it seem like all films/TV programs about Henry VIII portray him as a BRUNET? Look at any random portrait of him and, it is abundantly clear that he was a REDHEAD.

Biggest "WTF" moment in the film: Henry forcibly taking Anne from BEHIND - who knew he was so damned kinky??”

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