**/**** Image A Sound B+ Extras B+
starring Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana, Kristin Scott Thomas
screenplay by Peter Morgan, based on the novel by Philippa Gregory
directed by Justin Chadwick
by Bryant Frazer Pop culture works in mysterious ways. I suppose the Tudor dynasty never really goes out of style, but it's interesting to see two completely different takes on the tale of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, reach audiences more or less simultaneously. The second season of Showtime's lavish series "The Tudors" just concluded with the (spoiler?!) beheading of Boleyn, followed by a close-up of a beautiful little girl who would become Queen Elizabeth I. The Other Boleyn Girl, produced in part by BBC Films, ends much the same way, with that same act of reprisal followed by a beaming young face representing that same incipient monarch.
How could it end any other way? The irony is too delicious. Henry was nearly driven mad by the failure of his chosen consorts to produce a male heir worthy of the crown, pushing Queen Catherine out of the way (along with the Roman Catholic Church, which would have forbidden his remarriage to Anne) in order to get to Anne. After Anne, too, failed to bear him the son he so desperately wanted, she was accused of and charged with adultery and treason. Her execution paved the way for the King's marriage to Jane Seymour, who finally gave birth to Henry's successor, Edward VI. But it was Anne's daughter, Elizabeth, who would eclipse Edward on the world stage and in the eyes of history.
"The Tudors" has spent many hours immersing itself in the colourful social and political machinations of Henry's court, where Jonathan Rhys Meyers embodies him as a lithe, sensual egomaniac, drunk with power and high on his own pheromones. The Other Boleyn Girl, based on a novel by Phillipa Gregory, focuses instead on the relationship between two women: Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman) and her little-known sister, Mary (Scarlett Johansson), a mistress of the king's. As Gregory tells the story, the girls are close enough that, when Anne schemes to seduce Henry on her own and shut Mary out of his life, it's a betrayal that stings. And Eric Bana's Henry is a player for sure, though the film emphasizes his distance. He's got a strong face and big, gentle eyes, but he's an inscrutable force of nature, running the country from behind closed doors and frequently making an appearance, in soft focus, in the bedroom. Too, as both Anne and Mary learn (to their chagrin), he lies like a pro.
The Other Boleyn Girl is a movie about how poorly these women are treated. They're exploited by the king, who eventually regards them as mechanical babymakers to be cast off after repeated malfunctions; they're misused by the kind of society that allows girls and young women to be traded off in marriages of convenience that stand to benefit their callous, class-conscious elders; and they're betrayed by each other, as sister turns against sister in a bid to catch royal favour. In theory, this is fine subject matter for a movie, but the incessant quasi-feminist tack taken by screenwriter Peter Morgan and director Justin Chadwick is simply too on-the-nose. They lay it on so thick that the only time poor Kristin Scott Thomas (playing the Boleyn girls' mother) gets a line is when she's required to function as a one-woman Greek chorus, stepping up and delivering an inconsequential bromide about the abuse of her daughters.
I don't think much of "The Tudors", but at least it boasts lots of sex and scandal, with Rhys Meyers reliably chewing up the scenery. The Other Boleyn Girl is just a soap opera without the suds, a melodrama without much drama. Although the (cheesy, Photoshopped) video cover promises a bodice-ripper, this is at best a skirt-tugger, a button-fiddler. It springs to life fitfully at around the halfway mark, when Portman shows up in a gorgeous green dress and starts to kick up some sparks as Anne pushes her sister aside to throw herself at the king. Alas, that's another problem: For all the film's dismay at the treatment of women, it hardly gives Anne a fair shake. She's depicted as scheming, shallow, and ultimately hapless and helpless, meeting her end at the hands of the king whose favour she so ruthlessly curried. Be careful what you wish for, this film tells you. (Also: be nice to your sister.)
Happily, director Chadwick appears to be aware of some of the film's shortcomings. In an amiable, if oft-repetitive, audio commentary, he explains that certain scenes that were scripted and storyboarded--like the ill-fated hunting sequence that might have been a highlight, dramatizing Henry's early aversion to Anne and giving him reason to gravitate towards Mary instead--had to be jettisoned during production due to budgetary concerns. I made a note very early on of the film's clumsy expository dialogue, and Chadwick seems to see it too, describing one scene ruefully as "a little bit Scooby-Doo." Still, he brushes all that aside; "It's all about performance," he insists, repeatedly, describing and drawing our attention to the two-camera shooting technique that allowed scenes to be cut from the single best take, as Chadwick's lens caught the action from two different angles. (The performances are fine, as far as they go. Johansson has a few nice moments, and she's credibly unrecognizable in an intense childbirth sequence. I suppose Portman may be better technically, and her role has more juice, but somehow, though she's fun to watch, I was never compelled to believe in her as a character.) Elsewhere, Chadwick calls out his cinematographer, production designer, costume designer, sound recordist, and probably some others I'm forgetting for special praise. You know how these things go.
Chadwick also talks a lot about the look of the film, shot using Panavision's Genesis HD camera--and it's here that the Blu-ray Disc presentation shines. (The disc even includes a short camera test filmed inside a barn to gauge the latitude of the footage.) You'll yawn less if your eyes are actively scanning the frame for visual goodies, and these frames are packed with them. Chadwick and cinematographer Kieran McGuigan have made some odd choices with regard to the colour palette--some scenes are so aggressively toned in greens, blues, and/or golds-verging-on-browns that it distracts the action on screen--but they pay off in certain moments, like Johansson's first appearance, apparently dipped in a mixture of butter, honey, and sunlight, being helped into her clothes. And what clothes they are: this is a movie where you can see every button, texture, and thread on every piece of garment--where every pore, whisker, and downy tuft is visible on the screen. "HD just soaks up detail," Chadwick avers on his commentary track, and it's true. As I haven't seen this theatrically, I don't know if 35mm prints have that same hyper-detailed look--my guess is the optical steps required for going out to celluloid would noticeably soften the digital image. And sure, it's just eye candy, except when it's not. There's a shot at one point of the back of Natalie Portman's neck, covered with tiny, soft hairs--it's a moment of great delicacy and, if you know enough history to understand what will happen to that neck by the end of the third act, it's arguably the film's greatest moment of lyricism as well.
|Click for hi-res BD captures|
|Lush and green|
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Given the characteristics of HD photography (to my eyes, bright greens and yellows really pop, and the narrower dynamic range can easily blow out the highlights), and assuming that the colours are reproduced as intended, this looks like a solid version of the film, lightly letterboxed at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p transfer is not unnaturally sharp, nor did I detect any of the over-zealous noise reduction that has marred so many movies on DVD and Blu-ray. If you want to see the bandwidth of Blu-ray maxed out, check out the water splashing up from underneath the hooves of Mary's horse at 1:40:11. The speedometer on my PS3 clocks that scene at a blistering 50 mbps, and while this is the sort of thing that torture-tests a DVD and completely dismantles the image on high-definition cable, this picture remains crisp--every water droplet streaking across the screen has integrity. I did detect a hint of mosquito artifacting around high-contrast edges by leaning in and studying a still frame, which goes to show that even the best is not quite perfect.
As far as the audio is concerned, there's not much to say. (I'm listening to the TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack downconverted to 640 kbps 5.1 Dolby Digital.) The Other Boleyn Girl has a decent but unremarkable soundmix, using the surrounds mainly for atmosphere (birds tweeting, ambient noise) and to expand the soundstage when the score wells up behind the picture. My subwoofer roared to life whenever horses appeared on screen, conveying the deep rumble of their hooves and music to match.
The disc has a raft of extra features (all of them presented in HD), including a slew of deleted scenes, many of them dealing with Mary's life after she moves away from Henry's court. (They would have made the film feel longer still.) An alternate ending is tweaked in interesting ways, with a slightly more grisly view of the aftermath of a beheading and a somewhat more verbose variation on the "whatever-happened-to" text that closes out each character's story. Of the three featurettes, I preferred "Translating History to the Screen" (10 mins.), in which the usual filmmaking suspects (in addition to novelist Gregory, whom I was eager to hear from) talk about moving from non-fiction to novel to screenplay. "To Be a Lady" (11 mins.) asserts, redundantly, that women of the 16th century didn't have it so good, while "Members of the Court Biographies" (17 mins.) is a collection of historians, actors, and filmmakers discussing each of The Other Boleyn Girl's main characters in more detail. If you don't know much about history, yet find it fascinating, this may make for interesting viewing.
More to the point, if a little awkward, is "Inside the Court," a picture-in-picture affair that, when selected, periodically shrinks the main feature to a window surrounded by a slide conveying information about the Tudors, the Boleyns, or the customs of the time. (The shrunken image looks to be about DVD resolution.) Thankfully, it's easy enough to skip from item to item instead of watching the entire film, again, from start to finish. It's a nice gesture, but the slides are repetitive, as though different people were in charge of writing the copy for different sections and didn't realize that certain ground (like Mary's husband's death from the unpleasant-sounding sweating sickness) had already been covered. You'd learn more, faster, if the disc simply linked you to the relevant Wikipedia entries. (There is, purportedly, some BD Live content, but when I tried to connect on three different occasions I downloaded only an error message. Feh.) Anyway, I'm old-school: I'd rather have a booklet containing that information than read a few nuggets off my TV screen. Trailers for 21, Vantage Point, Persepolis, the remake of Prom Night, Premonition, Made of Honor, Across the Universe, and The Jane Austen Book Club round out the platter.
Bottom line: picture quality is gorgeous and the extras do what extras are supposed to--they elevate the content. It's a nice Blu-ray package; shame about the film. Originally published: June 12, 2008.