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Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves

Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson survive their melodrama.


If the phrase hadn’t been so sullied in recent weeks, I’d say The Other Boleyn Girl is about an ambitious family that “pimps out” its daughters for the sake of power and prestige—a characterization that in the sixteenth century, under Henry VIII, would have gotten you suspended … from a gallows. Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman) is the saucy flirt, her sister, Mary (Scarlett Johansson), the demure naïf. At the instigation of her uncle and father, Anne comes close to bewitching King Henry (Eric Bana) but makes the mistake of looking more proficient on a horse than he does. So it’s Mary (a newlywed) who becomes his mistress, while Anne hatches a plot to flash her dark eyes at the goatish monarch and then refuse to put out. Driven half-mad by thwarted lust, the king discards Mary, rebuffs the papacy, and forms a new religion to divorce Catherine of Aragon—who cannot bear him a male heir anyway, so Henry can claim there’s civic virtue in his vice. Anne’s triumph, though, is cruelly short-lived. Until the ascendency of Elizabeth I, women of the English court are infinitely replaceable.

Directed by Justin Chadwick from a script by Peter Morgan (The Queen), The Other Boleyn Girl is a brisk feminist melodrama that is, historically speaking, a load of wank. It has the feel of a game of “telephone,” in which information is progressively mangled. The Boleyn sisters, who in life weren’t close, are in Philippa Gregory’s best-selling tony bodice-ripper both subtle rivals and intimate co-conspirators. Morgan transforms them into opposites who sometimes cling fiercely to each other, the promiscuous Mary a goody-good country girl with a demeanor that’s vaguely Amish, the thoughtful Anne a Scarlett O’Hara in brilliant green. As a soap opera, the film offers none of the kinky pleasures of Showtime’s The Tudors, in which Jonathan Rhys Meyers emits the kind of twisted pansexual vibe (his specialty) that could conceivably upend an empire. The Other Boleyn Girl is all on the surface.

It’s a resplendent surface, though, and the lines have a satisfying snap. As he proved in his portraits of Elizabeth II, Tony Blair, and Frost and Nixon, Morgan understands the distinction between public and private discourse—and how in powerful figures the two modes bleed into each other, with private whims setting public policy for centuries. Morgan and Chadwick keep the focus tight, omitting Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas More, and the devoutly religious Anne’s role in helping to conceive and sell the Reformation that would sever both Catholics from Protestants and her head from her shoulders. Details, details. The Other Boleyn Girl skips from royal snub to royal snub, miscarriage to miscarriage, the Boleyns beginning and ending as pawns of arrogant males, their power illusory, their only solace their enduring sisterhood.

And what of these young American actresses’ putting on British accents to vie for the English king (played by an Aussie)? They seem, at first, like enthusiastic coeds in a college production of The Importance of Being Earnest, but once the dislocation fades, their commitment wins you over. For starters, they’re so gorgeous they’re museum-worthy. The cinematographer, Kieran McGuigan, uses candlelight to caress one side of the actresses’ faces while leaving the other in velvety darkness. When Henry studies Anne at prayer, the downy hairs on the back of her neck have a glow that’s first angelic and then devilishly alluring. Although her voice is untrained (it rasps when she pushes it), Portman gives The Other Boleyn Girl what it needs: not just a queen but a drama queen.

Scarlett Johansson is the revelation, in part because the role is such a muddle of innocence and opportunism and dopey passivity. Johansson opens herself up to the camera, and roots Mary’s improbable transitions in the character’s impossible choices. With no evident strain, with almost everything internalized, Johansson keeps her head and makes you understand why Mary kept hers.

A small child with a pacifier toddles, unwatched, into the waves while, on a different continent, an underage boy labors all day in an auto-body repair shop in a massive junkyard, tucking himself in at night in a seedy room over the garage, subsisting mostly on microwave popcorn: Two films, one American, one Brazilian, one slickly commercial, the other raw and probing, both set against a backdrop of extreme poverty and criminality, both touching on violent inequality and the terrible impact of absent fathers. If you guessed the American film was the slick one, guess again: Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop is a low-budget vérité triumph, set in Queens beyond the sight of baseball fans in nearby Shea Stadium. Bahrani’s concentration is close to supernatural as he tracks the young, prepubescent Ale (Alejandro Polanco) from job to soul-numbing job, some legal, some extralegal, to the point where you’re forced to suspend altogether your moral judgments and watch with a mixture of pain and awe. Working to survive and somehow save a few thousand dollars to buy a dilapidated truck from which the 16-year-old sister (Isamar Gonzales) who shares his little bed could sell food, Ale lives in a world where fathers (including the One Upstairs) are nowhere in evidence. Yet he moves from hope to hope. The only thing that rocks his world is seeing his sister turn tricks in the front seat of a car.

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