Monday, March 3, 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl: The Filmstar Girlfriends Of King Henry the Hulk


Peter Morgan is a script writer who behaves like a car dealer. He deals in reputations, subtracting mileage from the clock, Tippexing the log book, and generally telling his customers the truth as they would like it to be. The strength of his own reputation (a shelf full of awards for The Queen) is testimony to the popularity of this approach.
Morgan’s standing was cemented by his script for The Deal, which fictionalised the popular myth about the relationship between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, showing Blair to be a vacuous spiv and Brown to be a saturnine grumbler with a grudge. It wasn’t exactly true, but nor was it exactly untrue. Its success was based on it being a plausible impersonation of the actuality, with added spite and a twist of tabloid narrative. The same can be said about Longford (detailing the relationship between the doddery old Lord and the murderer, Myra Hindley) and The Queen, which charmed audiences by presenting the British royal family in crisis, with sprayed-on emotions. Viewed logically, that Oscar-winning performance by Helen Mirren was nothing like the Queen: Her Majesty would do well to impersonate the Dame. And Morgan’s play (soon to be a film) Frost/Nixon makes a drama out of an interview, being a turbo-charged retelling of the WWF bout between David Frost and the disgraced President.
The Other Boleyn Girl is slightly different - being an adaptation of a novel by Philippa Gregory - but substantially the same, in that it takes history, adds wishful thinking, and spins a yarn designed to appeal to contemporary attitudes. Gregory’s suggestion is that Henry VIII had an affair with Ann Boleyn’s prettier younger sister, Mary, fathering the son he always wanted, but was distracted by the scheming of the jealous Ann, who betrayed her sister in order to enhance her own prospects. Ann won the crown, but lost her head. (Parallels to Mr Blair and Mr Brown are not encouraged, but nor can they be entirely discounted).
Morgan has been over this ground before. His television film Henry VIII starred Ray Winstone as the tubby monarch and Helena Bonham Carter as Ann Boleyn. That film was pitched as a love story in which Henry proved his devotion to the insecure Ann by marrying her, ditching the Catholic Church in the process.
A measure of Morgan’s progress – and that of the director, Justin Chadwick (fresh from Bleak House) – can be seen from the cast. Henry is played by Eric Bana, an actor of fearsome, if diminishing reputation, whose main qualification for the role seems to be the torso which expanded to cartoonish dimensions in Ang Lee’s less than incredible Hulk. Nor are the sisters conventional English roses. Ann is played by Natalie Portman, and Mary is Scarlet Johansson. These pretty girls are blessed with a beautiful mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and a scheming uncle, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey) who employs their wiles to ensure the advancement of the family. He’s a pompous pimp, which is slightly confusing, as Morrissey plays Norfolk in roughly the same way as he essayed Gordon Brown, though it’s hard to imagine the Prime Minister telling his nieces: “To be mistress of the King of England is in no way to diminish status.” The Boleyns’ mother is more Fife-like in her outlook: “When was it that people stopped thinking of ambition as a sin and started thinking of it as a virtue?” A very Peter Morgan line, as the answer is probably 1979.
Anyway, Ann accepts the challenge, and is quickly shown to be no respecter of royal protocols. She rides her own horse, which confuses our ’enry. “With no man to hold onto, how do you propose to stay on the horse?” he demands. The bold Ann, channelling Mae West, replies: “As you do, your grace. With my thighs.” Unfortunately, Ann’s proto-feminist approach to equestrianism leads Henry into a deep ravine and he falls off his horse, into the arms of Mary, an amoebic beauty with lovely hair. Mary’s face, he says, “is as the sun: one shouldn’t gaze too long.”
That’s his big mistake, because the opportunity to gaze at Johansson’s face is the best thing about The Other Boleyn Girl. The history is hokey, and the ending is never in doubt, so the story’s intrigue rests on the Machiavellian machinations of Morrissey, who is so one-dimensional that he would be improved considerably by the addition of a charcoal moustache. Ann, meanwhile, has the spunk of a Spice Girl and the manners of Alexis Colby, which is fine in Dynasty, but oddly wearing in Tudor England.
Ann is tried for “incest, high treason and offences against God.” If that had happened, the film might have been more exciting.