dir: Justin Chadwick
[img_assist|nid=146|title=Why don't people take us seriously? We're so intense!|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=375]
First up: I haven’t read the book this is based on, and I’m never likely to. So this isn’t going to be either a bitchfest about how it doesn’t conform to the book, or a point by point comparison betwixt the two. Seeing the book (and, to a lesser extent, the film) advertised gives me a strong sense that it’s chick lit/flick material.
Of course, it’s not: it’s history! With Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman! And Eric Bana (who cops third billing, which must be somewhat humiliating) playing Henry the VIII! Sorry, Henry Tudor, King of England.
It’s pretty hard to take a set-up like that seriously. With due respect to Bana, who can play everything from a loathsome criminal (Chopper), to a Hulk, to a noble Trojan prince (Troy) to a Mossad hitman (Munich), such a cast list invites derision even before parking one’s arse in the theatre. It’s simply ridiculous. Hollywood goes middlebrow: that’s always a recipe for disaster.
It’s preposterous on paper, and comes at a difficult time for historical ‘epics’ to be taken seriously, especially after that recent Elizabeth: The Golden Age abomination, which was an act of cinematic atrocity inflicted upon an all-too-forgiving audience.
The truth is, I did derive a fair amount of enjoyment out of this flick, and I’m not entirely sure why. Hating that last Elizabeth flick left me prepared to get my hate on again, but it did not come to pass, alas.
It’s not solely the pleasure for the eyes derived from watching Scarlett and Natalie cavorting about in corsets and other such frippery. It’s made with the same eye for “we’ve got to jazz this up or people will be fucking bored” detail that damns other recent such historical flicks that act as if two people talking is a cinematic failure if it goes for more than 20 seconds. If they’re speaking to each other for too long, without a cutaway to a scene where someone is riding really fast on a horse as if chased by monsters from the Lord of the Rings films, or having people hurry down a hall as if they’re delivering a transplant organ instead of a hand towel, then the makers feel that the real significance of these historical events won’t get across to an audience which is now in a collective coma, thank you very much.
But for all that, and for the simplistic renderings of the characters themselves (Anne is conniving, Mary is nice, Henry is a brooding sex crazed monster), something decent does come out of all this.
For those who’ve never heard the tale of Henry the VII, and his prodigious appetites, and his incredible actions which changed the course of England’s history solely because he was so desperate for a male heir (and a notorious nailer of any available ladies, married or not, willing or not), this story might seem a bit strange to them, seeing as it is told from the point of view of the Boleyns rather than the Tudors. In this the blame, or at least the catalyst for Henry’s split with the Catholic Church, the creation of the Church of England, and the execution of Katherine of Aragorn all result from the rivalry betwixt the two Boleyn sisters, Anne (Portman) and Mary (Johansson). Historically invalid, but dramatically intriguing.
At first the machinations and Machiavellian manoeuvrings arise from the desire of the girls’ father (Mark Rylance) and uncle (David Morrisey) to weasel their way higher in the Tudor court. The present queen Katherine (Ana Torrent) has failed again to produce a male heir, and the Boleyn men think that offering up the elder sister as a likely mistress to the king will secure their wealth and position in court.
King Henry chooses the younger, recently married Boleyn, Mary, instead, which enrages Anne and sets off a course of events that would lead England to the brink of civil war.
At first the two sisters growing rivalry is not the deciding factor: the constant meddling of the elder Boleyn men and the chattel-like position of the girls means self-determination in their fates isn’t really an option. Mary doesn’t really have a choice in matters despite being married, since father, uncle and king leave her no room for choice. When rebellious Anne defies the men, they ship her off to the court of the French king, punishment through exile. Before she leaves, her mother, Lady Elizabeth (Kristen Scott Thomas) bids her to learn what she can about the art of manipulation and getting what you want with cunning instead of tantrums.
And by being the greatest cocktease in British history.
A really glib way to look at Anne’s fate is to describe it as the greatest occasion of buyer’s remorse in human memory. I’m familiar with buyer’s remorse, intimately. Many is the occasion where I’ve spent far too much to buy something that gets me little in return. Rarely, though, have I strived to attain something which has, ultimately, destroyed myself and everyone I know.
That’s really what Anne’s fate is here: up until she gets what she wants, which is to be the Queen of England, she is calculating, cunning, careful and ruthless. She has no qualms about destroying her own sister, getting Katherine killed or potentially ruining England. Once she’s there, though, it’s a very different story.
Portman is weak in many scenes, probably the weakest in what is, apart from the leads, a solid cast, but she’s pretty good in scenes with her sister. Her scenes are less strong with the King, but we could be generous and say that the falling apart of her acting coincides with the falling apart of her character.
Even if it’s not at all true, we could say that. There are a fair few clunkers in the script, resulting in exchanges between characters that sometimes sound like what Americans think British people with silver spoons up their arses talk like, and other moments that waver between contemporary expressions (I was expecting them to say stuff like “like”, and “you know” at certain points) and self-parody.
As history it’s redundant, as a cinematic experience it’s directed in a clumsy and hamfisted manner, but dramatically (or even melodramatically) it worked for me, for reasons I still can’t fathom. There’s something about the manner in which the girls throw themselves into the pantomime, and something about what the film says about the status of women at this time that speaks to me. Though much of the direction is murky, some of the court scenes and the indoor cinematography spoke strongly of the inherent weirdness of life at court. I also appreciated the fact that the character of the king didn’t devolve into self-parody, because the temptation could have been to outdo Orson Welles or any of the other cinematic versions where the guy is represented as an obese glutton from beginning to end. I don’t need to see him or anyone tearing legs off roasted beasts and chowing down with bits of food all over his face. On the other hand, Bana physically seems wrong for the role, despite brooding appropriately throughout.
The dynamic between the two sisters is the heart of the story, not the king and his wicked ways, and since that’s the story they’re trying to tell here, they succeed. The strongest scenes are delivered by actresses, whether it’s Lady Elizabeth, or Katherine of Aragorn, or, ultimately, Anne Boleyn, in front of a court of scheming nobles who, despite the ladies’ eloquence and their innocence in the face of their respective charges, will be destroyed nonetheless by men who prize their ambition over the lives of these women.
There is a muddled kind of feminist message hidden amidst the soap opera level melodrama and eye candy. I’m not sure if I understood it, or if it really made any sense, but I’m still kind of glad that it’s there. Kristen Scott Thomas, playing the Boleyn mother, is also really strong in revealing what the likely fate of both her girls will be, despite the hopes and greed of the men who make the decisions in her family that she is powerless to stop. She’s not above deriding the men to their faces, either.
However wishy-washy Portman is at certain points, there is no disputing how strong she is in her final scene where her fate is sealed. Sealed in such a way as if to say “this is what happens when women get too above themselves and think they are the equal of men.”
When will the ladies learn? Men are way too insecure to allow them true self-determination, in this or any other era. Even a hypothetical Empress Hillary Clinton could never change that.
Of course, the very end of the flick refers very clearly to who would succeed Henry on the throne of England, which becomes a victory of sorts for the sisters in the story and the Sisterhood in general. Hooray for the ladies!
As history it’s diabolical, but as entertainment it’s passable. Passably enjoyable stuff. I enjoyed it despite the thousands of objections I could probably have come up with, but it worked for what was intended. And, you know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but at least that makes for a decent ride getting there.
6 times I kept wondering whether Scarlett was finally going to get the ‘girls’ out to no avail out of 10. Which is a shame, Scarlett. Would have given the flick an extra point otherwise, maybe even two points in that case.
“These were the rooms for the king's closest friend. His head now rots on a spike.” – The Other Boleyn Girl