Dir: Justin Chadwick. US/UK. 2008. 118 mins.
Philippa Gregory’s riveting novel of sexual intrigue in the court of Henry VIII gets a two-studio, star-studded film treatment here from first-time feature director Justin Chadwick. But while he and screenwriter Peter Morgan make a valiant effort to condense all the twists and turns of the book into a two-hour movie, the film ultimately falls flat.
The main pleasure of Gregory’s prose lies in the details of the court, the cliques and tensions, the minor characters who all play a part in the lives of the major ones. The film version is forced to cut all this out, while at the same time wading through all the historical exposition the story entails. Although it starts well, The Other Boleyn Girl’s storytelling quickly becomes perfunctory, the character focus is abandoned, the unputdownable pace of the novel lost
Box office prospects are not electric in the domestic market, despite the star wattage of Portman and Johansson and the interest generated by HBO mini-series The Tudors which covered the same historical ground (and whose format would have better suited The Other Boleyn Girl). It could follow the same trajectory as Elizabeth: The Golden Age, with interest quickly dropping off domestically but performing better internationally, where interest in historical subjects and the two female leads is greater.
Originally scheduled to open in December as an awards contender, the film is more staid and solemn than it should be. The story works better as a sexy bodice-ripper than an austere period drama, but, unlike Gregory, Chadwick is too respectful of the history and fails to ignite the melodrama.
Portman and Johansson play the two Boleyn sisters Anne and Mary respectively. Anne has always been an ambitious, ruthless girl while Mary is a respectable and decent sort, and the film begins as she is married off to the son of a merchant family. Patriarch Sir Thomas Boleyn (Rylance) is a man of humble origins who has married well to Elizabeth (Scott Thomas) and is well-connected to King Henry’s court through her brother The Duke Of Norfolk (Morrissey).
When Norfolk reveals that the king (Bana) is restless with his marriage to Queen Katharine (Ana Torrent), who has failed to provide him with a male heir, Sir Thomas immediately suggests Anne as a potential mistress and a royal visit to the household is engineered.
Although he is beguiled by the headstrong Anne, Henry eventually settles his fancy on Mary who is summoned to court. But as even a casual observer of history knows, Anne will stop at nothing to get what she wants.
Whereas the book followed the story of Mary, the film keeps a balance between the two and pays short shrift to Mary’s post-Henry romance, instead rushing through a short history of the foundation of the Church Of England. Chadwick is a prodigious talent, as his BBC TV series of Bleak House demonstrated, and there is plenty to admire here, especially his work with actors, although, taking a leaf out of Shekar Kapur’s history book, he swoops and swings the camera around the palace halls and corridors with unnecessary abandon. The power-grabs here are better-suited to a tightly-focused chamber piece treatment a la I Claudius.
The performances are all solid. It’s good to see Portman spit some fire and venom as Anne, and, although she is not a natural goody-two-shoes, Johansson heaves her bosom with conviction as Mary. Their English accents are, for once, authentic enough as not to prove distracting. Bana is a commanding Henry, if a little too trim and muscular. A rich British supporting cast includes a who’s who of hot young Brit actors - Jim Sturgess, Eddie Redmayne, Oliver Coleman and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Scott Rudin Productions
North America distribution
Focus Features International/Universal Pictures International
David M Thompson
Based on the novel by Philippa Gregory
Director of photography
Kristin Scott Thomas