Monday, March 10, 2008

On the Big Screen

The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)
Dir: Justin Chadwick

Regular readers of ::Acquired Taste will know that, while I write fantasy, I also have a partiality for historical fiction. Before Christmas we looked at the BBC series The Tudors, a piece of highly entertaining froth looking at Henry VIII's struggle to divorce Katharine of Aragon and marry Anne Bolyen.

The Other Boleyn Girl, adapted from Philippa Gregory's novel, covers broadly the same period but from a rather different perspective. Where The Tudors was primarily an ensemble piece (if it had a lead character, it was King Henry), TOBG is a more tightly focused domestic drama, with the Boleyn family at its centre. This makes at times for a curiously unbalanced narrative--Henry's break with Rome is casually squeezed into five minutes of a badly flagging fourth act--but the film is not attempting to provide a nuanced portrait of the high Tudor period.

Instead, the film's focus on a single, crassly ambitious family considers the human cost of political intrigue. It's taken for granted by the Duke of Norfolk (a smoothly repellent David Morrissey) that his brother-in-law will not object to the Duke prostituting either or both of his daughters in the cause of family advancement. In the film's political dynamic, women exist to be manipulated, trophies and tokens to be enjoyed and cast aside. Anne (Natalie Portman) believes that she has learned to pull the strings at the French court: events prove her sadly optimistic.

Where the film stands or falls--and by large it stands--is in the relationship between the two Boleyn sisters, Anne and Mary (Scarlett Johansson). Johansson, despite a huge amount of screen time, is given very little to do except look demure and victimised (which she manages very well). Portman has by far the stronger role as an ambitious schemer who will betray anyone--including her sister--to get what she wants. Events unravel, of course, and Anne is dragged down to eventual show trial (where her uncle Norfolk is among those who condemns her) and execution. Portman manages to wring a degree of sympathy for her fate in a nicely-rounded portrayal.

The film is interesting in that it concentrates on the viewpoints of the two essentially powerless sisters. The decision to steer away from the court power politics (Wolsey and Cromwell hardly feature, Sir Thomas More not at all) allows the marginalised characters to take centre stage. In this it may be dismissed by some as a "woman's film" (the male characters are generally either weak, callous or both), but in taking a different perspective on a well-known period, it's to be commended. It's not without its flaws, but for those interested in writing fiction about court intrigues in pre-industrial societies, it's required viewing.


Alis said...

Hi Tim!
Must confess, I haven't seen the film yet, but it sounds from your review as if it's been pretty faithful to the book which I enjoyed very much. Have you read the book and, if so, does the film do it justice?

Tim Stretton said...

Haven't read the book yet, but having seen the film I'm very keen to do so. The last quarter felt rushed and I suspect the book might have handled the pacing better.

While the Tudor period has been done to death in historical fiction, it's immensely fertile and rewarding: immensely dramatic characters, personal conflicts affecting the state, a mixture of well-documented figures and shadowy names (like Mary Boleyn herself). If you can't find a story tell in that lot, you probably can't write historical fiction...