The Other Boleyn Girl (PG-13)
Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
There has to be a compelling way to tell this story, I kept thinking to myself. After all, it's a fascinating footnote in British history: How King Henry VIII, who broke with the Catholic Church to divorce his wife and marry Anne Boleyn, also may have had an affair and illegitimate children with Anne's sister, Mary. The intrigue, the passion, the potential sisterly cat-fights what didn't this story have?
But Philippa Gregory who wrote the 2002 novel The Other Boleyn Girl dragged her narrative through so many redundant musings about the plight of 16th-century women used to further male power that Anne losing her head couldn't happen soon enough.
So how would an adaptation of this meandering epic approach the topic? By packing its plot points so tightly that all subtext gets choked out before it has a chance to emerge.
The story opens in 1520s England, with the king (Eric Bana) still lacking a male heir from Queen Katherine (Ana Torrent). The King's close advisor, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey), sees this as an opportunity, and places one of his nieces into Henry's court as a possible mistress. With Mary Boleyn (Scarlett Johansson) newly married, her younger, more ambitious sister Anne (Natalie Portman) is given the task but Henry notices Mary instead.
In some ways, Morgan's adaptation does prove efficient. He abandons the character of Archbishop Wolsey as Anne's adversary, focusing on the machinations of her uncle, the duke.
Morgan knows there is much to cover, and to his credit, it's never unclear who the principals are or what they stand to gain.
There is more to the story, however, than keeping track of the players without a scorecard. Director Justin Chadwick frames several scenes as though they are being viewed surreptitiously and spends so much time on the sex scenes between Henry and Mary that the fundamental gender politics of the story are missed. It becomes all about who's doing what to whom, and too rarely about why.
That emphasis certainly doesn't help the performances to shine. Johansson plays the victim, never capturing Mary's determination to find a normal life. Portman comes across as petulant and vindictive, without conveying her desire to transcend the limitations on female power. And Bana well, maybe the script and direction can't be blamed for his vapid Henry. He has been shrinking into roles for years now. Only Torrent's queen finds a higher level as she tries to re-assert her authority even as it's slipping away.
As one might expect, there's plenty of attention paid to the period costumes as well as to forbidding exterior shots of stone castle walls. But if all the film wanted to do was act out a Wikipedia entry on Gregory's book, it might at least have gotten more of the facts right.
Gregory's problem was not knowing when to let the story speak for itself. In film, The Other Boleyn Girl has the opposite problem: It grabs all the chapter headings and jettisons everything in between. The tale may be adapted from a historical footnote, but it doesn't have to feel like one.