Blu-ray Review: THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL - Well-Shot, Well-Intentioned Dud

Justin Chadwick, the director of The Other Boleyn Girl, has only worked in television before and, sadly, you can tell. The movie has things that work better than others, but ultimately it falls down because it cannot find a cinematic way of telling its story. By €˜cinematic€™ here I do not mean visual, as actually the movie is rather nicely shot, albeit on digital. But it needed to find a way to sustain its drama on an emotional level for two hours and it doesn€™t figure it out; it€™s too episodic, skimming through the historical facts it is (loosely) based on without finding a dramatic thread to hold it together. Four years after it's theatrical release, The Other Boleyn Girl was released on Blu-ray this week. This may, for all I know, be a problem with Philippa Gregory€™s popular novel on which it is based, which I have not read. At any rate it is not massively helped by the movie€™s stars. As has become common practice for movies set in Britain€™s past, the leads are American, and the supporting cast British. This has the effect of making the leads look worse, and underlining how good some of the British actors are. That Natalie Portman, who plays Anne Boleyn, and Scarlett Johansson, who plays her sister Mary, are American is not really the problem; Eric Bana, who plays King Henry VIII, is Australian, and rather good in the role. And Portman, who has just picked up an Academy Award for Black Swan, has some very good moments and can be an excellent actress, but the role is written in a way that makes it borderline impossible to play. Johansson, I fear, is simply miscast; she too can be an excellent actress, but she works within a fairly narrow range, and she spends this movie with the look of a deer in the headlights. The movie takes place in the early 16th century, with the King€™s marriage to Catherine of Aragon disintegrating over the fact that she cannot have any more children and he longs for a male heir. It is widely known he is looking for a mistress and Mary (Johansson) is put forward as a candidate. Anne is soon exiled to France for attempting to marry against her family€™s wishes, and when she meets the king again she is determined to win him from Mary, which she succeeds at, though not necessarily to her benefit. Her change in attitude when she returns is one example of the movie not figuring out how to plausibly sell its narrative shifts; one senses that there is a better movie somewhere in this story, where the audience could really believe in the change she undergoes. The movie is not a complete mess; Bana is fairly well-cast as the king, although he has less screen time than you might think. The supporting cast includes Kristin Scott Thomas, as the girls€™ mother (good as always although it€™s a fairly thankless role), David Morrisey, one of the highlights, as the sinister Duke of Norfolk, and Benedict Cumberbatch as William Carey, Mary€™s first husband. The photography is by Kieran McGuigan, who is also from TV but may, based on this, have a future as a Director of Photography on other, better movies and has since worked on Love Ranch and Killing Bono. Finally the screenplay is adapted by Peter Morgan, which is the most baffling aspect of this movie; Morgan has written superb works both for TV (€œLongford,€ €œThe Deal€) and cinema (€œThe Last King of Scotland,€ €œFrost/Nixon,€ from his own play). The dramatic problems with this script seem so obvious to me that I can only assume, kindly, that what ended up on screen did not reflect what Morgan wrote. There is nothing wrong with historical dramas of this kind, and some are wonderful (€œThe Lion in Winter€ springs immediately to mind). They can inspire people to read up on real history (so long as they are prudent enough to take the dramas as fiction). Young girls may have enjoyed some of the drama but the movie deals with subject matter too dark for them, but not in an interesting enough way really to appeal to adults. It also hedges its bets a bit in regards to the subjugation of the women involved; when Kirstin Scott Thomas says her daughters are being bartered €˜for the advancement of men€™ it sounds like a 20th century viewpoint clumsily shoved into a 16th century setting, for political correctness or to help put the audience€™s mind at rest, or something. At any rate she is spelling out what the audience already knows, and it is one of several examples of the movie not trusting the intelligence of its viewers. The Other Boleyn Girl was released this week on Blu-ray.
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I've been a film geek since childhood, and am yet to find a cure. Not an auteurist, but my favourite directors include Robert Altman, Ernst Lubitsch, Welles, Hitch and Kurosawa. I also love Powell & Pressburger movies, anything with Fred Astaire, Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn, the space-ballet of 2001, Ealing comedies, subversive genre cinema and that bit in The Producers with the fountain.