Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves

Photo: Alex Bailey/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

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.

Bahrani directed a film called Man Push Cart (2005) about the life of an immigrant selling hot dogs. It was beautifully photographed and attuned—as in the work of Belgium’s Dardenne brothers—to one-thing- after-another workplace rituals. But it had a bittersweet fairy-tale scenario that was too movie-ish. Chop Shop isn’t so beautiful or artfully sculpted, and you can’t shake it off as just a movie. You want to head out on the 7 train and find this little boy—or someone like him.

Set in Rio de Janeiro, City of Men is a quasi-sequel to the international smash City of God and has a similar mix of grit and bleached-out stylization. But the director, Paulo Morelli, isn’t an action virtuoso like his predecessor, Fernando Meirelles (who co-produced here). Morelli has a more insistent message. High up on “Dead End Hill,” Ace (Douglas Silva), the 18-year-old who forgot his tiny son at the beach, grew up without a father and can barely bring himself to sort-of look after his child. His best friend, Wallace (Darlan Cunha), also grew up without a father—and decides it’s time to track him down. There’s no one who can step in and protect the pair from a senseless gang war in which the shooting seems almost as natural (and indiscriminate) as partying. City of Men is clunky and often contrived, but there’s something haunting about fatherless boys in a blighted place fumbling to teach themselves what it means to be a man.

A gore-drenched portrait of mass psychosis induced by a pattern on a television screen, the shot-in-Atlanta indie horror film The Signal has drawn breathless comparisons to David Cronenberg’s work for its message that reality is subjective and easy to manipulate—that all it takes is a few rerouted synapses to suppress the part of the brain that says you’re not entitled to beat people to a bloody porridge. The movie has grand (and Grand Guignol) bits and pieces, but despite the hype it’s no big deal. By horror standards, the premise isn’t especially outlandish. Non-sociopaths can often justify acts of violence in the course of committing them, their minds as addled as on any acid trip. And when the hills are alive with the sound of senseless carnage, it’s marauding-zombie business as usual. It’s not even news that we’re unnervingly susceptible to viral marketing.

The Signal has a boffo first act—and I mean “act” literally, since the film is in three parts, each helmed by a different director (David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry). A tremulous woman (Anessa Ramsey) leaves the bed of her tender, non-macho lover (Justin Welborn) and heads home to her abusive exterminator husband (A. J. Bowen), whose jealous interrogation of her is right on the border between ordinary sick and scary- monster-movie sick. The carnage that erupts is an extension of his sense of injury—and what follows makes poetic sense, too, because the guy in the T-shirt walking down the apartment-building corridor shredding throats with a hedge trimmer bears a marked resemblance to the neighbor who’s a little too mad when he asks you to turn down your music.

But the second act is played as stylized black comedy—Theater of the Absurd—with a bit of (disgusting) torture porn thrown in to keep you from getting comfy. It kills the movie: It makes The Signal’s directors seem as blood simple as their characters. For all the babble about the thin line between rationality and psychosis, the filmmakers don’t venture beyond male overentitlement and male rage. The schlock-horror signal in which they’ve been bathed makes them believe that their grindhouse misogyny is the human condition.

The scorching pairing of Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson has been a nice late-winter gift for the press—there was that bondage-flavored cover for W magazine and rumors of catfights on set (quickly and firmly denied by male lead Eric Bana). Two days after Valentine’s Day, the fetching duo amped up the promotional tour with a “steamy kiss” on the red carpet at the Berlin Film Festival. For monarchy-minded gossip hounds, the most delicious tidbit came at the London premiere, when the two dewy Americans playing royalty shook hands with the real McCoys: Prince Charles and Camilla, the duchess of Cornwall.

The Other Boleyn Girl
Directed by Justin Chadwick.
Sony Pictures. PG-13.

Chop Shop
Directed by Ramin Bahrani.
Koch Lorber Films. NR.

City of Men
Directed by Paulo Morelli.
Miramax Films. R.

The Signal
Directed by David Bruckner.
Magnolia Pictures. R.


Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves