Old-World Soap Opera Finds Its Gossip 'Girl'

    {grate 3.5} Who knew the English were capable of so much drama? “The
    Other Boleyn Girl” plays like an engrossing soap opera where everyone is
    sleeping with everyone else and
    political backstabbing abounds. The film is so saturated in entertaining
    familial tension that you almost feel dirty enjoying other people’s tragic
    escapades. But your guilt-free twist to all these medieval hijinks is that most
    of the betrayal, sex and beheadings are pretty close to historical fact. So,
    when you feel like you’ve indulged in cinematic thought-junk, just remember
    you’ve actually gotten a healthy dose of history, with only a small side of
    tabloid!

    Based on Philippa Gregory’s book of the same title, the
    movie is packed with historical appeal that’s only been slightly distorted by Hollywood.
    It chronicles the power grabs made by the Boleyn family during the reign of
    King Henry VIII as Papa Boleyn uses both daughters, Mary and Anne, like cash
    cows in a game of royal roulette. Which girl will capture the king’s heart? Or
    better yet, which girl will keep his heart? Though your high school history
    books have already chronicled Anne’s nefarious rise to queen-hood and
    subsequent beheading, “The Other Boleyn Girl” focuses on the less-hyped Boleyn,
    taking the hypothetical slant of a what-would-Mary-do variety, as it focuses on
    the role she could have played in all of the political volleying.

    Meek and pawn-like, Scarlett Johansson plays Mary like a
    well-trained mouse, cowering in quiet beauty that renders her angelically
    benign. Every scene is front-loaded with a heavy dose of her big baby blues
    that scream helplessly for some strong, muscley rescuer. In stark contrast is
    the badass maneuvering and charm of Natalie Portman’s Anne, who, within 30
    minutes, grabs control of the family and leaves Johansson looking like a sheep
    to her wolf. It’s no surprise, considering that at 13, Portman was sidekick to
    a hitman in “The Professional,” while Johansson was being nursed back to health
    in “The Horse Whisperer.” Talented as she may be, it’s sadly familiar to see
    Johansson in the role of a besieged beauty wimping rather than fighting it out.
    Sure, she’s pretty, but maybe her easy good looks could take a break like
    Nicole Kidman in “The Hours,” or maybe she could choose a role where her
    character kicks someone with conviction. Think about it, Johansson: baby steps.

    Anne is the more compelling character, willing to go to any
    lengths to secure her man and status as queen; Mary serves as the convenient
    shadow that observes a plot moving merrily along without her. She is only “the
    other girl,” after all, so maybe a waif-like obedience to fate is what Gregory
    was going for. Yet it still feels a little cheap when Mary moves from involved
    catalyst to sympathetic hand holder.

    Her ying to Anne’s yang doesn’t ruin the thrill of the
    Boleyn brood’s violent rise in court, but it does make you want to strangle
    Mary when she forgives Anne so easily. If your sister sleeps with your man, it
    seems pretty evident why you shouldn’t forgive that ho.

    Then there’s the curious casting of hottie Eric Bana as the
    notoriously rotund British monarch. Any kid from your first period world
    history class can tell you Henry VIII was a brute made of cellulite and
    baby-making dreams, so the choice of hunky Bana is pretty random.

    But even if Hollywood did step in and make a couple of
    purely aesthetic casting choices, the end results aren’t so far from a
    reasonable truth that you’d get distracted.

    What “Boleyn” does do is deliver a captive quality that
    makes forgiving its historical liberties not only bearable but damn near juicy
    as well. So what if Anne Boleyn is rumored to have had six fingers on her left
    hand and Portman only has normal digits? The story is so engrossing and the
    acting is of such pure quality that most of the errors go unnoticed. Its
    nonflashy style plants the intrigue center stage, right above its pretty
    costumes and elaborate shots of the rolling English countryside.

    By the film end’s, the snazzy gear and English upheaval
    merely fade into the background of Anne’s tragic fate. Love or hate her, Anne
    is still the most historically interesting Boleyn. Sucks to be you, Mary “what’s-her-face”
    Boleyn.

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