There are costume dramas that rely on the primped, closeted pains of social order, placing tea service above matters of the heart. And then there are costume dramas that subvert the genre by digging their heels into soft, wet melodrama. "Other Boleyn Girl" isn't high art, but it's juicy; 2008's first guilty pleasure.
With their social standings only starting to form, sisters Anne (Natalie Portman) and Mary (Scarlett Johansson) Boleyn have bright, prosperous futures ahead of them. On the day of her wedding, Mary prepares herself for a lifetime of love and family, but when it's made clear the Queen of England cannot bear King Henry's (Eric Bana) baby, both Anne and Mary are offered to the King by their duplicitous, reputation-hungry family (including David Morrissey), and he selects Mary to be his mistress. Anne is stung by the rejection and returns in time with a plan to turn the King's attention to her, finally assuming the control she's always craved.
Adapted from the 2001 best-seller by Philippa Gregory, "Boleyn" has been drained of its historical blood and turned into a flagrant bodice-ripper, filled with unchained lust and reach-the-balcony performance posture that's wildly entertaining. Director Justin Chadwick attempts to keep order with his period flourishes, such as ornate costumes that swallow the performers and ostentatious lighting. It's actually a rather confident directorial effort, as if to offset the candied edges of the screenplay; a written offering intended to radiate corset-tight regality for the matinee art-house crowds, but it has trouble holding back the tidal waves of melodrama.
"Boleyn" isn't for thin-skinned moviegoers. Its fanged approach to the material is something I feel needs to be celebrated, especially when it results in a particularly stunning performance from Natalie Portman. An actress difficult to cast properly, Portman sinks her teeth into the role of Anne, leaping from a winded future spinster to wicked Iago, cloaked in impossible angles of clothing. It's refreshing to watch Portman tear through the film, stomping over Johansson and Bana, who both seem more than happy to turn the movie over to her. Anne's rise to royalty is a startling, scream-at-the-screen display of cunning and forked-tongued womanly witchcraft, perhaps not representing the finest work Portman has turned in, but it certainly stands as her most electric demonstration of cunning villainy.
History has a way of worming its way into the picture; the second half of "Boleyn" steps away from intimate family business to concern itself with the larger picture of Henry's potential loss of throne and the aftermath of Anne's sexual manipulation. It's never dull, but there's something about "Boleyn" that's felt more strongly when it keeps to matters of the loins and manipulation, not the stone halls of decision. Chambers gets back on the horse with a satisfying package of treachery for the final reel (even stretching to the possibilities of incest), and a comforting mood of overwrought, audience-baiting theatrics returns to salvage the picture.
"Boleyn" requires a sense of adventure from the audience that allows for chest-heaving displays of humiliation and social positioning not unlike something found on a highly-rated soap opera. "The Other Boleyn Girl" isn't your average costume drama, and I was thankful for the change.
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