March 6, 2008

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The Other Boleyn Girl (PG-13)
Chests heave, loins ache and heads roll in The Other Boleyn Girl, a frothy soap opera version of the first divorce and second marriage of King Henry VIII.

King Henry (Eric Bana) is unhappy with his marriage to Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent — historical sources seem to vary on the question of “Catherine” or “Katherine” but this movie goes with “K”), specifically with the part where they make whoopee but not sons. (At least, not sons that survive very long.) The Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey) decides to use this information to his family’s advantage and talks his brother-in-law Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) into parading his daughter Anne (Natalie Portman) in front of the king in hopes of getting his majesty to make her his mistress. (Fill in your own joke about pimping out your kids for political gain here.) If all goes well, the male Boleyns will get some cushy appointments out of the deal and Anne will get some status at the royal court and eventual marriage to a duke. Anne’s mom Lady Elizabeth (Kristin Scott Thomas) sees “bad idea” written all over this plan but can do little to stop the men in her family as they bumble forward.

Despite all the scheming, the first meeting between Anne and Henry goes rather roughly and Henry ends up thrown from his horse and in the care of the other Boleyn girl, Mary (Scarlett Johansson). Mary, Anne’s younger sister, is only a few days into her married life and looking forward to a quiet future in the country with her husband. But after a few minutes with the king, it’s not to be. He invites/orders the Boleyns to come to court so Mary can be one of Queen Katherine’s ladies in waiting, which is a very polite way of introducing your wife to the woman you plan to cheat on her with. After initially being intimated by the back-biting, gossip, manipulation and social climbing that is a part of palace life, Mary learns to rather enjoy mistresshood — but, because she is Good, most of that enjoyment comes because she is genuinely in love with the king.

During this time, Anne stirs up trouble by trying to land a duke all on her own and is banished to the French court, where her mother tells her to watch how the French noblewomen manipulate their men (rather than just whining a lot to get their way). It’s a lesson she takes to heart: when Anne returns to England Mary is in a different kind of trouble and Anne is all full of Gossip-Girl-like cattiness and ready to take on court society. Her first step is to become the It girl of court — quick with the jokes but all blushes and batted eyelashes when Henry suggests she, you know, come up for some coffee in the royal bedchamber. Anne puts him off, getting him to promise first not to hang out with Katherine anymore and then not to talk to Mary, even though she’s pregnant with his child and even though that child turns out to be a much-longed-for boy. Eventually, that wily Anne even gets Henry to tell the Pope where he can put his refusals to annul the royal marriage and soon the country is Protestant and out a Queen, all so Anne can get a ring on her finger before she engages in any hanky panky.

About 10 minutes of Internet searching will convince you that this movie takes quite a bit of poetic license in its telling of this piece of history. (Wikipedia entries about the Boleyns even seem to be more certain than not that Mary, not Anne as this movie suggests, is the older Boleyn sister.) I can hear the movie-pitch-meeting response to that criticism: it’s not about the nitty gritty of historical detail, it’s about the sweep of the story and personalities behind the famous names. Except, no, I want my nitty gritty historical detail. The Other Boleyn Girl turns the creation of the Church of England into the secondary result of one king’s hormone-led quest for a roll in the hay — like he’s a sex-addled high school jock who’s all “yeah, sure, baby, I’ll take you to prom, if you’ll just let me get to third base…” Anne is just a vindictive attention-hog who steals her sister’s man to get back at her for an earlier slight. Katherine gets a smackdown of a speech but then majestically vacates the picture. No religious turmoil that molded the priorities of a beleaguered Pope. No power struggles between Spain and England, England and France, England and the Pope. No explanation of the state of England’s political landscape that turned Henry’s desire for a male successor into a near mania. We get corsets and massive gowns in eye-catching colors and elaborate headpieces that frame the actresses’ faces in some crazy new emotion-appropriate way in each scene. We get soaring scores and trembling voices. But we never get the sense that these events are any more relevant to history (and their for dramatically interesting) than, say, the Brenda-Dylan-Kelly love triangle of that summer season of Beverly Hills 90210. Even in the historically questionable Elizabeth: The Golden Age we got a mix of the personal and the political that had more heft than this movie does.

Take away the historical relevance and all you’re left with in this movie is a bit of pulpy romance — fine as far as it goes, but with wooden performances, limp dialogue and scenes that seem to end before they really get going, that isn’t very far. The characters don’t get to develop much beyond one-dimensional descriptions — Henry is horny, Anne is petulant, Mary is wounded — and their 16th century fashions. C

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content and some violent images. Directed by Justin Chadwick and written by Peter Morgan (from the novel by Philippa Gregory), The Other Boleyn Girl is an hour and 55 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Sony.