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The Other Boleyn Girl

We are all going to learn something from Justin Chadwick's The Other Boleyn Girl. Not much about English history, perhaps; Peter Morgan's screenplay presumes that you know all of that — as, indeed, one segment of the film's audience certainly does. What The Other Boleyn Girl is going to teach us is about the rest of the audience: the young people who don't know Anne Boleyn from Anne of Cleves, and who just may have heard of Anne of Green Gables. Are audiences still to be swept up by grand cinematic pageantry, powered by excellent production values, and  articulated by outsize actors whose diet of scenery is just what you'd look for in Tudor monstrosities? Can an Anglicized telenovela in period drag not only trump relevance, but trounce it?

Can you make this kind of movie not only without Richard Burton and Katharine Hepburn but without the audiences who ate them up?

It's not a forecast that I should dare to make. I shall content myself with noting, with mild amazement, that The Other Boleyn Girl is not ridiculous. We will never know where a fatal flaw might have surfaced, sinking this scrumptious dessert of a movie like a molecule of egg yolk in the meringue. Long as it is, The Other Boleyn Girl is over before it can fail to rise to the occasion — possibly because the occasion never arises, either. The occasion would have been Anne's bittersweet triumph, which is more or less the centerpiece of the other Boleyn movie, Anne of the Thousand Days. An object lesson is available in the comparison: in the new movies, cheery Renaissance ditties have been set aside, for the most part, to make room for Paul Cantelon's chilly, menacing score, which suggests the dangers of earlier, medieval centuries, the reach of whose dynastic complications did indeed cloud the Tudor sunlight. For Anne's wedding banquet, an exception is made, but the branles and sarabandes are drowned out by the offstage populace calling the new queen a witch. The lack of festivity almost transforms Eric Bana, who plays "Henry Tudor," into Charles Laughton.

Mr Bana is not the likeliest Henry; the actual king was an edgy, hot-tempered redhead. But hovering over this movie is the ghost of Walter Scott, who certainly knew how to improve history to his readers' taste. We have tired of neurotic tyrants, and in any case the magic of The Other Boleyn Girl requires a more lovable Henry. The secret of Mr Bana's performance is the wizardly with which he inflects the king's majestic bearing with the reluctance of a guy who's stuck with a big job that he can't perform on his own. Beneath those goalpost shoulders, this mighty king is a kid who can't figure out how to produce a son. As the film mordantly points out at the end, Henry didn't need one, but Mr Chadwick and his crew have the sense to keep the Irony of Elizabeth to themselves. They don't make the mistake of invoking a future that would only undercut their story.

Their story, of course, is not about Henry and Anne, but about Henry and Mary and Anne, Mary (Scarlett Johannson) being Anne's younger sister. When Anne (Natalie Portman) initially makes a hash of her family's plot to snare Henry's amorous attentions, the married and very reluctant Mary is pushed forward in her place — only to fall in love with the man. Mary's happiness is short-lived, however, for she is soon pregnant, and the king, still very much married to Catherine of Aragon, does not owe her the attention that he will have to pay to her sister when he makes her his queen — as Anne famously insists he do before she will yield to his carnal embrace. If Mr Bana is good at bringing to life the helpless inner king who longs only for dynastic stability, he is also very adept at impersonating the god of melodrama: one stern look from him can make audiences forget any number of loose ends.

Of, if he didn't actually make me forget, he made me willing, and possibly eager, to overlook them. As the royal and aristocratic outfits paraded up and down the stone galleries, all I worried about was not losing my own head as Anne and her brother (Jim Sturgess) lost theirs. The moments in which I was tempted to giggle — invariably featuring the solitary figure of Mary on horseback, usually in bad weather, riding desperately to or from Court — were very brief.

In her gabled headgear, Kristin Scott Thomas, as Lady Catherine Boleyn, the girls' mother, looked quite astonishingly like the unimaginably resigned Madonna in a carved Fifteenth-Century pietà. She was not given very much to work with, as a mother bereft of two of her children, but, being the magical actress that she is, she made us feel relieved to have been spared the spectacle. Mark Rylance gave an unparalleled portrait of a dangerously weak man who has been dealt unusually good cards. As for the principals, they are as interesting as real sisters, and, just like real sisters, each one is going to be disliked by those who prefer the other. I expect that Ms Johannson will take a beating; clever audiences in particular don't seem to grasp her intense moral feber, for which her only cinematic forebears are the de Havilland sisters. Miss Portman's blazing chic, in contrast, invites unfavorable comparisons with the gravely beautiful Helena Bonham Carter of Lady Jane. Not to mention the august, leonine Genevieve Bujold. But don't imagine for a second that I'm complaining.

I do wish that Paul Ettesvold were still with us, to explicate the three styles of headdress. (March 2008

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