Good to Be the Queen?
Some people are just meant to be movie stars — they’ve got that indefinable It that makes them glow onscreen, that makes them impossible not to watch. They make movies a joy to watch. Maybe they don’t render movies historically accurate. Maybe they don’t transform movies into Great Art. So what? They make movies fun and sexy. Mean and nasty. Whatever you’re looking for in a movie to let you escape from reality into a fantasy of intrigue and romance.
And that’s all in The Other Boleyn Girl, the fun sexiness, the mean nastiness, the oh-my-god-movie-starness of Scarlett Johansson (no relation — don’t I wish I could glom onto her gorgeousness) and Natalie Portman and Eric Bana. They are not movie stars who let you forget you’re watching movie stars — at least not in this movie, and maybe costume dramas bring that out in certain actors; they’re not, at least not in this movie, actors who can disappear into their roles. But that’s okay. It’s redolent of the kind of glamour and charismatic faux-trickery of Golden Age Hollywood, like watching Cary Grant or Katharain Hepburn in anything: you never really want to see a character, you want to just bask in their radiance for an hour or two.
That’s sort of not fair, when it comes to this flick, because it’s not like these three stars aren’t real actors, don’t want to be taken seriously: it’s just their own damn dumb luck that they’re so impossibly captivating in that movie-star way. And so the kind of sexual Mexican standoff in which they find themselves circling around one another becomes a ridiculously delicious soap opera. England’s King Henry VIII (Bana [Lucky You, Troy], and I’d never have thought to cast him, as big a fan as I am of his, but he’s scrumptious and infuriating in the best way) finds himself first entranced by the aristocratic but sweetly innocent Mary Boleyn (Johansson: The Prestige, The Black Dahlia), never mind that she’s already married to a perfectly nice if beneath-her-station merchant (she loves him, so who cares about station?). And then he decides he really wants Mary’s sister Anne (Portman: Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, V for Vendetta), who, you know, really wants him too, cuz not only is he gorgeous like Eric Bana, he’s the king of England, which brings a lot of perqs to an overlooked daughter of a second-rate nobleman. Oh, and never mind that Henry was already married to someone else, too. It’s all to do with making sure he gets the male heir he desperately wants, and Bana’s monarch is so honkingly despicable, and the women are so graspingly power-hungry, that you can’t help but get caught up in it. Plus, you know, the clothes — which are absurd and fascinating at the same time — and the manners — which are like the clothes, baroque parodies of propriety and decorum barely covering scandal and outrage and vile ambition — and the delectableness of women grabbing authority whichever way they can, if they’re to be denied it via the routes men can take…
Who cares if it matches what history professors tell us? (Apparently, it doesn’t quite, though I’m not expert enough on the British monarchy to say so one way or the other.) I don’t mean to denigrate the study of history, which is supremely vital, but this ain’t about the past: it’s about here and now, as stories set in the past always are. Do you really want to keep women “in their place”? Because, look, you can’t keep a smart, determined woman down. It’s kinda hilarious, actually, that the “other” Boleyn girl here is the one history remembers best, Anne, the one who lost her head for love of the king… or love of the power that the love of the king could bring. Screenwriter Peter Morgan, adapting Philippa Gregory’s novel, has built a career on exploring the foibles of the ultra powerful — The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, the forthcoming Frost/Nixon — and he knows what he’s talking about. (British actor turned director Justin Chadwick wisely stands aside and lets his writer and stars do the heavy work.) You might take off a lady’s head once she starts to annoy you, but don’t be so sure that her daughter won’t have the the ultimate revenge in the long run.