The middle ages were tenebrous times for modern civilization. Drenched in blood, disease and poverty, they embodied degeneration. Human rights were inexistent, and the human condition destroyed. People would do anything for power and wealth, for it was a world owned only by those who were blessed with both. The Boleyn sisters, although scheming, betraying and lying their way to royalty and historic infamy, are martyrs not criminals. They merely reflect the immorality and cruelty of the society they were raised in.
When Henry king of England (Eric Bana) discovers his queen’s infertility, the prospect of an heir suddenly seems bleak. Desperate for a son and to produce the future king, Henry’s court sacrilegiously seeks a surrogate mother. The Boleyn family sees in this opportunity the potential to move up the proverbial social ladder and live the hedonistic life it desires. Soon enough, both of their daughters, Mary and Anna, are pawned and thrown into the whirlwind of jealously and tragedy that is the king’s court.
Henry is quite the promiscuous majesty and is unable to satiate his burning desire for the female flesh, scattering his illegitimate progenitors around the countryside and destroying their mothers’ lives in the process. Anna (Nathalie Portman) and Mary (Scarlet Johansson) on the other hand, are two beautiful sisters with very different temperaments, Mary being the naïve and trusting Boleyn, Anna the ambitious and conniving one. Whereas Mary unwillingly charms the erratic king with her uncanny kindness of heart, Anna bedazzles him with her boldness and strength and Henry, such a pollinating bee, skips from one Boleyn sister to the next. Mary is the first to spark his interest, but is quickly tossed aside as she is not strong enough to demand her place in the king’s court. Anna, on the other hand, seizes him with a firm grip and schemes her way through the court and straight to the throne, changing history forever.
The Other Boleyn Girl is a captivating movie, if only for its incredible story of royalty, greed, lust and betrayal. It is impossible to remain untouched by such a genuine tragedy. Accordingly, when watching a film with such subject matter, one would expect a discourse, whether visual or written, resembling those of the great tragedies like Medea, Antigone and Madame Bovary. It needs to be intense and unapologetically immersed in immorality, sexuality and deceit. The setting must be bleak and threatening, the sex explicit and rough and the betrayal torturously heartbreaking, for it is a story of innocence being raped by power and greed. Instead, The Other Boleyn Girl’s environment is a little too inaccurately majestic and comfortable for its time period and the dialogue never seems to truly grasp the essence of the characters’ emotions. Moreover, the costumes, whether accurate or not, are hideous and somehow manage to strip the film’s very attractive cast of all its sex appeal, leaving the actors to do the most with the least, and consequently beheading their performances. As a result, The Other Boleyn Girl comes off as a feeble love triangle period drama, taming its subject matter and denying the story of its potency.
Portman and Johansson are two of the best and most attractive young actresses that Hollywood has to offer these days. They both carry this movie convincingly and embrace their parts wholeheartedly; however they do not project the magnitude or the intensity that their characters require. Throughout the movie, Johansson delivers as the naïve and gentle sister, looking more understated and vulnerable than we have seen her in a long time. Equally as good, Portman is delicious as the scheming Anna, and tirelessly fascinating to watch. Anna Boleyn is a part of a lifetime for any actress, and Portman does the best she can to surpass the film’s limitations, and to give it justice. Whereas both actresses seem to be at the top of their game in this movie, they pale in comparison to other established actresses in relatively similar roles, namely Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth; a testament mostly, to the movie’s weak rendition of a powerful story.
The Other Boleyn Girl’s unwillingness to be as daring and notorious as its characters is a tragedy, as it stood, before its execution, as the film with the best story and cast to come out in a long time. Although quite entertaining for a period drama, it shamelessly diminishes the gravity of its subject matter, and when its final credits start rolling, it leaves one longing for the movie that it could have been.
There are very few ways to make a bad movie when dealing with a great story. That being said, The Other Boleyn Girl is a tragic movie adaptation.
Review by Ralph Arida