Friday, March 07, 2008

THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL is strewn with cowpats from the Devil's own satanic HERD

Who is Cyberman's favourite Briton? It would have to be Henry the Eighth. He killed off the Catholic Church. He killed Cardinal Wolsey. He killed Catherine Parr and Anne Boleyn. Yes our favourite Briton is definitely Henry the Eighth. Because he was an unstoppable killing machine!THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL is an adaptation of Philippa Gregory's historical novel. She portrays the Boleyn and Howard family as eager to advance in wealth and position by pimping out their daughters to Henry VIII. First, Henry knocks up docile Mary, but then casts her aside for her more intelligent and ambitious sister Anne. Her pride piqued by her rejection at the hands of Henry Percy and her family's prior support of Mary, Anne pressures the King into divorcing his true wife, Catherine. But as Queen, Anne's position will only be safe if she can deliver Henry a son.

It's a fantastic story written in clear unpretentious English. Best of all, Gregory manages to balance our base instinctual need for trashy romance and a happy ending with a more profound depiction of a society where women were chattel, and those who made their own way were liable to be seen as abominations.

The movie, however, is problematic.

The problems start with the script. Peter (of THE QUEEN fame) takes an intellectually superior work of historical fiction and strips it of any subtlety. He leaves behind a work that is much reduced - in terms of scope, motivations, credibility and enjoyment. The novel made the relationship between the two sisters more complicated. Yes, there were jealousies and rivalries but there was also a shared commitment to success and wrongs on either side. By contrast, the film has Mary as a pantomime do-gooder heroine and Anne as a malicious little whore. (Anne's relationship with Henry Percy is so quickly skated over that we have no time to see her softer side. It's also ironic to see Anne portrayed in the first half of this film almost as maliciously as she would have been portrayed at the time. So much for historical revisionism in a post-feminist world!) The motivations of Henry VIII are rendered especially opaque and Peter Morgan creates a particularly crass scene in which Henry rapes Anne. This strikes me as a particularly lazy and insidous short-hand. The mechanics of how Anne comes to be accused of being a witch are also reduced to a crude and obvious incest charge - a theme that is handled with far more subtlety and intrigue in the novel.

Finally, the most grave charge against Peter Morgan's adaptation is slovenliness. He introduces themes only to leave them hanging in the air. A classic example is that we are introduced to Mary's husband William Carey. He sort of disappears and then before we know it William Stafford is offering to take care of her. The informed viewer will realise that Carey has died in the interval, but Peter Morgan doesn't bother passing on this information. Morgan also allows a couple of lines of jarringly anachronistic dialogue to creep into the script. So, one moment we are talking of "piss-pots". The next, we're being asked to "look on the bright side". Morgan also makes the Boleyn's mother, Lady Elizabeth, the voice of feminist dissent. This is rather patronising. I think I might have worked out the social importance of the film without having a character precis it for me.

The director and cinematographer, Justin Chadwick and Kieran McGuigan, do little better, making choices that reduce their film to a cheap bodice ripper with no self-respect. From the start, the movie is drenched in a warm honey glow - soft-focus love scenes and dappled sunlight that renders the actors faces orange in the interior scenes. This is so starkly in contrast to the aggressively modern, grimly real look of Chadwick's BLEAK HOUSE that one can only assume that the critically acclaimed BBC adaptation was a success because of fine editing and production design rather than its direction. Or maybe Chadwick was hamstrung by producers and marketing departments going for a "heritage" TV look and a simple tale of sibling rivalry?

There's little joy in front of the camera. Scarlett Johansson (Mary Boleyn) doesn't so much act as look doe-eyed and slow-witted. Natalie Portman (Anne Boleyn) is the better actress. At least, she is very good at working herself up into fits of hysteria. Her mastery of the English accent is less certain. Jim Sturgess (George Boleyn) looks uncomfortable and inadequate. David Morrissey (the Duke of Norfolk) delivers his lines in a modern style that stands out from the self-conscious affected period melodramatics of the lead actress. Accordingly, he seems mis-cast, or at least misdirected. Eric Bana (Henry VIII) is a fine actor but Peter Morgan's script doesn't offer him much opportunity to portray the complexities and gravity of Henry VIII's decisions. There is some compensation in the smaller roles. Mark Rylance (Sir Thomas Boleyn), Kristin Scott Thomas (Lady Elizabeth Boleyn) and Benedict Cumberbatch (William Carey), all do brilliantly well is largely under-written parts.

Finally, what more can one say than that this movie is a dreadful disappointment?

THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL is on release in the US, Netherlands, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Spain, Egypt, Russia, Germany and the UK. It opens later in March in Australia, South Korea and Iceland. It opens in April in France, Singapore, Belgium, Israel and Italy. It opens in May in Brazil; in August in Norway and in Finland on Septmeber 12th.

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