Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl (film review)

It’s the tail end of spring break, I should be grading papers, but instead I went to see The Other Boleyn Girl and I don’t regret it. A few months ago a librarian friend recommended Philippa Gregory’s novel to me but I didn’t have time to read it; now I wish I had – though watching Eric Bana on screen in a short skirt is a pleasure I haven’t had since Troy (2004). Who would have thought that King Henry VIII had the same hot bod as Hector, prince of Troy? This is not the overweight monarch of later years, but a young virile man in his early 30s. Unfortunately, though, we don’t get to see much of his flesh in The Other Boleyn Girl, which revels much more in the gorgeous period costumes and sets.

I have no idea why Natalie Portman gets top billing in this film over Scarlett Johansson, who is perhaps the greatest actress of her generation. (Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration – but I enjoy her work a lot.) Johansson is marvelous in the film, as is Kristin Scott Thomas – though in a decidedly more dour role as the mother powerless to prevent her brother and husband from controlling, and ultimately ruining, her children’s lives. Her brother, the Duke of Norfolk, is played by British actor David Morrissey who gives a very strong performance. I’ve never seen his work before, probably because he does mostly television, but I’d like to see more of him. (I notice he played Gordon Brown in a 2003 British made-for-television film called The Deal, it might be interesting to see now that Brown is England’s Prime Minister.) I was, however, chagrined to learn that he is the same age as me!!! He looks so much older in the film.

Despite the painful and stereotypical rivalry between the sisters, Mary and Ann Boleyn, the film is largely concerned with women’s lives, their social roles, and their powerlessness in a patriarchal society. This is not surprising in the story of a king who went through six wives in 34 years –the last five marriages averaged only 2 years each. For all three of the women who bear children to Henry during the film (Catherine of Aragon, Mary, and Ann), childbirth is their central preoccupation. During pregnancy they are confined as virtual prisoners in darkened rooms to protect their health. Their frequent miscarriages and stillbirths are tragic not only because of the obvious pain of grief and loss, but also because of the vulnerability of their own positions at court. When they give birth to girls (Catherine’s daughter Mary and Ann’s daughter Elizabeth are both future English monarchs), the mother’s joy is tempered by the disappointment of the men around her – both Henry’s, who wants a male heir, and the family’s, whose sole concern is ambition. Ann’s onscreen rape by Henry is only a cruder and more physically violent manifestation of the powerlessness that all of the women in the film experience in most aspects of their lives – though men, too, are powerless in the face of Henry’s ruthlessness. My main complaint about the rape scene is that the film doesn’t do enough to avoid the implication that Ann “deserved” this treatment. Throughout the film she is played as the “bad girl” of the two sisters; Henry’s action shifts the power in their relationship from her to himself, putting her “in her place” – though I don’t doubt that Henry expected everyone around him to stay in their places.

Henry VIII is a real jerk. I liked Hector, son of Priam, much better.

Recently when I log onto Netflix I find a new feature: they’ve come up with a kind of profile of me as a consumer of film. They have selected six categories which evidently reflect my interests; and in each of those categories are four recommendations (I’ve actually seen most of them). The categories seem to vary slightly from day to day; today these categories are:

Contemporary Movie Musicals
20th Century Period Pieces
Dramas Based on Classic Literature
Dramas Based on Contemporary Literature
Best of Bollywood
Local Favorites for Columbia, Missouri

(That final category seems a bit absurd, if you ask me; it actually has 5 recommendations instead of the 4 that the other categories get.) I don’t know which of these categories The Other Boleyn Girl would fall under, I imagine it would be “Drama Based on Contemporary Literature;” it’s not a “20th Century Period Piece,” though it is a period piece (it was written in the 21st century). I have to admit I am a real sucker for historical costumes and sets, especially if they are filmed at real historic buildings. (BTW, someone told me recently that 75 percent of Oscar-winning films are based on literature, which doesn't surprise me in the least.)

Evidently Netflix hasn’t noticed that I’m particularly interested in these categories: Artists’ Lives on Film; Biopics; and Architecture on Film. I wonder if they ever will.

Update, May 23, 2008:
Tonight I discovered that Netflix HAS refined its category recommendations; I now have a new category called "Painting." I also notice Netflix picks up on a particular director (e.g., Hitchcock) or a particular actor (right now it's Jack Nicholson).

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