Sis-tahs 4-evah: The Other Boleyn Girl

The historical romance genre as kiddie porn: Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson in The Other Boleyn Girl (Photo: Columbia Pictures)

The Other Boleyn Girl, about two virtuous daughters who become rival whores for King Henry VIII, may reach its apex when Anne (Natalie Portman) takes her sibling Mary (Scarlett Johansson) by the hand, on the night before the latter beds the King for the first time, and exclaims, “My little sis-tah! My golden sis-tah! My milk-and-honey sis-tah!”

It’s no use wondering what real actresses might have done with these roles, because Peter Morgan’s screenplay (he also wrote The Queen) has almost nothing on its mind. There are a few well-written speeches delivered by Kristin Scott Thomas (the movie’s one good performance) as the girls’ mum; the lone voice of common sense, she objects to Anne being pimped out by her father and uncle as a possible mistress for Henry. (Think of the premise, if you will, as an English Reformation equivalent to Chelsea Clinton wooing the superdelegates.)

There’s a scene in which Anne, returning to Henry’s court from her exile in France, is supposed to wow the King with her new found savoir faire, except that Portman, decked out in emeralds and matching gown, seems to have wandered in from a community college production of Anne of the Thousand Days. She isn’t terrible, exactly—she’s just phony. And she doesn’t have a taskmaster like Milos Forman goading her to explore uncharted emotional terrain, as she did in the underrated Goya’s Ghosts. The chief directorial contributions of this movie’s nominal helmer, Justin Chadwick, appear to have been ensuring that film was in the camera and the cap was off the lens.

Certainly, Chadwick stands back while Eric Bana, recently seen hamming it up in Romulus, My Father, interprets King Henry VIII as if he were Colin Farrell’s understudy in Miami Vice. Whatever the real-life Henry may have been, this buff, close-bearded Kewpie doll isn’t it.

For sheer outré joy, the movie’s depiction of Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, cannot be topped. Played by, of all people, Ana Torrent, whose name will mean nada to the mallrats toward whom Columbia Pictures gears this folderol, but who will undoubtedly stir the curiosity of cineastes with sadomasochistically fond memories of The Spirit of the Beehive or Cría Cuervos, this heavily accented Spanish queen asks Anne and Mary, in her over-enunciated English, “Tell me, what special talents do you have besides your obvious youth and beauty? Dress-makin’? Singin’?” It’s a question that could well be raised to Portman and Johansson, both performers of exceedingly limited range who’ve been given a free ride by dumb critics for too long. But the delight is this: Catherine commands Mary to sing, and in her coarse, wavering, rockslide intonations, Jo-horror does for “The Western Wynde” what she did for “Brass in Pocket” in the feeble Lost in Translation. To which the Queen responds, “Brava! A nightingale!” as if echoing the flacks who hawked the Emperor’s now eminently threadbare new clothes. – NPT

This review was originally published in altered form in the February 27, 2008 issue of Willamette Week.

February 25, 2008