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The Boleyn Inheritance
by Philippa Gregory
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "The Other Boleyn Girl"

Call me a sucker for beauty, and say my critical faculties are easily numbed by the sight of these two particular actresses combining their substantial allure in a fiery castle drama and setting off royal fireworks of greed and ambition and I'll cop to all of it. What a chance for an array of costumery to dress and undress and taunt us with enough cleavage to take down a crown -- and that's pretty much what you get in this sex intrigue with these two vixens igniting the lust of a king.

Who can blame him -- him being Henry the Eighth (Eric Bana), aka, Henry Tudor, King of England, no less, when, during a royal visit to the Boleyn estate he spots Mary B (Scarlett Johansson). He's as much a sucker for an irresistible face and incomparable bodice as any healthy male, only he's got the cape to command whatever and whoever he takes a fancy to. Oh, to be a king.

But, en garde. There are those who would take advantage of him just when the queen, Catherine of Aragon, loses another child, a boy, in childbirth. He so needs a boy to preserve his legacy and the continued defense of his country at a time when vulnerability in leadership could spell disaster. Much is at stake and father Sir Thomas Boleyn and his brother The Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey) know what treasures they've got within their walls in two marriagable young daughters.

Certain fortune is theirs if they take advantage of this as yet unspoken-for beauty. Drive and ambition guides their plot to play the king's weakness. If successful they will immediately to set themselves up in court and assume power and position. It will turn out to be more eventful, dangerous and history-changing than they ever could have imagined.

At first, it's all about attracting the king to Anne (Natalie Portman), a lady given to plots and calculations. But, when the king spots Mary modestly in attendance to greet him, it's she who first experiences the king's bedsheats. The wench in the ointment, however, is Anne's inclination to take what she believes is rightfully hers. Just about the time mary delivers a boy, the king has become so hooked on Anne and her physical enticements, he sends Anne home.

One bad mistake leads to others of a desperate, demeaning variety, affecting the queen, the religion of his country, and the life of his consort. It all adds up to the corrupting effect of absolute power and the disruptive effect of fine cleavage.

History, literature and movies have given much attention to Anne Boleyn and the spell she held over a fawning monarch for seven years of holding his consummation of her at bay. The tragedy spawned by her beguilement of a king had made her a legend. Much less is known about her fair sister, a deficiency this movie and Philippa Gregory's 2003 novel on which it's based puts, dramatically, to rest.

Perhaps because of its hewing more closely to the historical record than the commercial romantic fluff, the relationship between the sisters avoids the cliche' of venomous competition. As represented in Peter Morgan's screenplay, (a writer who knows his way around royalty what with "The Queen" and "The Last King of Scotland" under his belt) Mary's perceptive emotional control and Anne's ultimate needs allowed sibling bonds to survive their pressured roles in the destiny of a kingdom.

Portman shows ability as the cunning temptress but the performance doesn't quite become outstanding. It's a fully mature characterization, smoldering, cunning, but not on the level of a Naomi Watts or Kate Blanchett. Though she doesn't find all the threatening nuances and shadings the part allows for, still, it's her best to date.

Johansson exudes a comfort level with her sensuality that can make men marvel. With her well established affect on the opposite gender, she maintains the composure and confidence of a philosopher as she makes Mary the worthiest of the Boleyn lot. She's the grown up, and the treasure. Their mom, swept up by the events and can only attempt to preserve some moral authority is played by the always classy Kristin Scott-Thomas.

Justin Chadwick, coming off much TV, directed, and maintained a level of clarity in the characters and storyline though it can be seen that a more seasoned feature director might have elevated the dramatic intensity or nuance. Eric Bana once again fills his royal robes with a sympathetic manliness, as he did in "Troy." This character's balance of political power and personal weakness is crucial to the drama and toward an understanding of so pivotal a legend of history. His actions as depicted here are, after all, why there's a "Church of England" and not a papal connection as there was before him.

Costume design by Sandy Powell ("Gangs of New York") is as astonishing and artful as those in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age". Cinematographer Kieran McGuigan kept his castle lighting dark and understated with, perhaps, too great a range of contrast, but had a splendid field day with the facial and bodice closeups of the ladies at court.

"The Other Boleyn Girl" takes the low road in telling us about King Henry VIII, for good commercial reasons. It doesn't give us much about the affairs of state that were making their marks on history. What we see are the man's personal tastes and baser nature that were even more significant to his country. Meanwhile, ambition and lust can't fail to brings us into theatres in large numbers. As we're often reminded, this is a business. Fortunately, baser nature applies to all, and that's part of the investment, and the appeal.

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Natalie Portman and Scarlet Johansson
Sisters to the end.

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