WHEN CHICK FLICKS GO AWRY
by Kevin Bowen
published February 29, 2008
Other Boleyn Girl
now playing nationwide
Allow me to introduce the First Bowen Law of
the Costume Drama: the quality of a costume drama is in inverse proportion to the amount of screen time devoted to people riding horses.
Is that true? Nearly as certain as your cell phone dropping on Isaac Newton’s head after it leaves your hand. If you happen to be up the tree.
Although I’m researching a possible Jane Austen exception. It works something like a wormhole.
There are two possible reasons for this natural phenomenon: when your story is destined to bore, you need the thunder of hooves, matched by an
overeager horn section, to convince the audience of its urgency. It’s also possibly a symptom of a director's charmless mind, a constitutional
inability to envision anything beyond stock visual ideas.
Needless to say, people waste unusual amounts of screen time in The Other Boleyn Girl spurring on their steeds, galloping from place to
place as if they need to keep an appointment to under-act. We have horses riding out on a hunt. Horses riding in from a hunt. Horses approaching
a village. Horses departing the village. Horses galloping to a castle. Horses galloping off a beach. Horses galloping to the castle again. The
phrase “Yes, Your Majesty” is only rivaled in number by “Hi ho, Silver.”
The Other Boleyn Girl, based on the Philippa Gregory novel of intrigue in King Henry VIII’s court, suffers from the uniquely British
self-deception that the royal family is interesting. People remember Henry primarily for the unpleasant endings to his six marriages (divorced,
killed, died, divorced, killed, survived). With the mentality of an oversexed lead guitarist, he ended centuries of his people’s religious
tradition so that he could marry his favorite groupie, Anne Boleyn. He also kept her sister, Mary, as a lover, and (maybe, in real life) fathered
a bastard child with her.
The story picks up as Henry’s first wife, Catharine of Aragon, fails to produce a male heir, leaving her future in doubt. The Duke of Norfolk,
uttering the type of ridiculously ominous words found only in movies (“These are dark times for the King.”), uses his nieces to seduce Henry and
advance family power. The king at first takes to the gentle wife Mary, inviting her to court with plans to seduce her. When eventual pregnancy
sticks her in bed, the king dumps her for her scheming sister, Anne. The younger sister won’t submit to the king’s advances unless he divorces
his wife and makes her queen. You know the rest.
The story’s feminist viewpoint, with women being used as breeding pawns in male power games, gets lost in the uniformly detestable characters and
the soapy storyline. Nor does the film expose the ritual absurdities that Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette found in the French court. The
final death scene sees director Justin Chadwick guilty of attempted grand tragedy, when the events feel more like just desserts. I dare you to
watch it and not think “Off with her head!” While imagining yourself ripping into a turkey leg.
Aside from the horse obsession, the film looks puny for its desired scale. The set design resembles your county’s Renaissance
festival, more like "The Safety Dance" than Pride and Prejudice or Elizabeth. Do English directors take classes in filming the
Maypole? Or shooting monarchs through iron grating? I guess it’s the style of ye olden times.
The acting is never quite bad, but if you wonder why Cate Blanchett got an Oscar nomination for Elizabeth: The Golden Age, here’s your
answer. The whole “I have a hurricane in me, sir” might be overacted bluster, but at least it fills the crown. The Boleyn performances seem
studied and small – good news for the soft-spoken Johannson, bad news for Portman, who never rises to her character’s historical weight. She
seems more like a high school sweetheart than someone for whom to risk a kingdom.
kevinbowen @ stageandcinema.com