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Shana Ting Lipton

Shana Ting Lipton

Posted: March 2, 2008 03:25 PM

Boleyn for Concubine


Madonna/Whore. Aniston/Jolie. And now, Johansson/Portman. The latter play chiaroscuro sisters competing for the favor of King Henry VIII of England (Eric Bana) in The Other Boleyn Girl. Natalie Portman is the ill-fated queen-to-be Anne Boleyn, while Scarlett Johansson plays her lesser-known sister Mary, referred to in the film's title. It is based on the Philippa Gregory historical novel by the same name, and appears to be the latest work to ride the increasingly popular fictionalized biopic wave. Yet, the plot has a morality play sensibility -- which is not entirely inappropriate considering the theatrical genre reached its zenith well into the 16th century. But it is perhaps a little too intellectually hopeful to imagine that the filmmakers intended this.

In this tale, the king is set up to meet Anne Boleyn as a potential child-bearer when his old and quasi-menopausal Queen Catherine of Aragon fails to give him a male heir. But Anne, played to prickly perfection by Portman, turns him off with her confidence and boldness, leading him to fall off his (high) horse while hunting. In a scene worthy of the Jude Law/ Nanny Affair, Anne's "innocent" sister Mary, a soft-spoken Johansson, nurses the injured king's wounds and he falls for her. He ends up choosing her over Anne, they make beautiful gentle love together (cue Enya style music) and he impregnates her. She gives birth to his son.

After a series of plot twists, Anne seduces the king by stirring up his sexual urges and denying them, until she convinces him to sever his ties to the Roman Catholic Church in dissolving his marriage to the queen. He marries Anne and their relationship is something akin to Sid & Nancy meets Sinatra and Gardner. She fails to give him male heirs (only one Queen Elizabeth I) and he ultimately has her beheaded for adultery and incest. The moral of the story: bad city-slicker women with ambition drive men and themselves to humiliation and ruin; good simple girls who resist the manipulations imposed on them by others end up living happily with their sweet simple husbands and children in the countryside.

Such black and white characters are all too familiar in film. Remember the conniving and ultimately publicly scorned Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons -- another period piece inspired by a novel (or Sarah Michelle Gellar in Cruel Intentions)? And of course, who could forget their holier-than-thou nemesis, the lovely Michelle Pfeiffer and squeaky clean Reese Witherspoon? Such stereotype-reducing storylines are perfectly poised for a Syd Field world, where there's no room to think outside the box office and delve into complex female character terrain. Similarly, don't look for such women in The Other Boleyn Girl. Its female characters are perfect for our hypocritically moralistic, fem power-fearing society.

Feminism, once deemed radical and revolutionary, has, since the '90s been branded passé and granny-worthy, as if women today don't need it, in any form, anymore. As if.... But morality, or fauxrality as it should be called in its contemporary incarnation, is the it girl. We descendants of the Brits love our morality -- even when it's media-manufactured and impossibly antediluvian. We put our royals, the celebrity class, (particularly women) up on pedestals only to gleefully knock them down. As a footnote, I recently caught a moment of the E! True Hollywood Story, Britney Spears: Fall from Grace. I'm curious as to how sitting in a car in your daisy dukes slobbering over Kentucky Fried Chicken with your baby in your lap is considered graceful. But I digress.

Like leading ladies in the film industry, historical heroines don't age well (especially when their characters are exaggerated for dramatic effect). Certainly there is some truth to Anne Boleyn's salacious persona; she was dubbed my some of her contemporaries, "the whore, Anne Boleyn." But there is much evidence to support the fact that her sister Mary was also a woman of ill repute. She had been described by one French royal as the most promiscuous woman in French court, during her time there.

Of course all this whore-calling, fails to take into consideration the fact that women in the 1500's, most notably intelligent motivated women, had limited choices. They couldn't exactly go to law school or business school and pursue a career as attorney general or end up a corporate CEO. Sex, virtue and marriage (not in that particular order) were their traded commodities. Yet, in The Other Boleyn Girl, Anne is portrayed as a vicious, libidinous, vengeful, power-hungry social-climber, and Mary, as pure as the driven snow. For those of us who grew up on Dynasty and Dynasty re-runs, the pool-plunging cat fight between Crystal and Alexis Carrington comes to mind.

In some circles, Anne Boleyn is considered a feminist icon. Her actions had the effect of ushering in the Church of England and Protestantism. A recent Times of London article which drew attention to the film's fairytale elements pointed out the historical reality of Anne's effect on Henry: "Her intelligence and strong character not only captured Henry but also enabled her to hang on to him by presenting herself as a powerful queenly figure, no longer a mere mistress." Despite superb production and costume design, and good acting overall, these traits do not come through in the movie.

Intelligence is interpreted as being of a wily manipulative nature. Strong character means she will stop at nothing to get what she wants. And 'queenly' becomes 'witchy' -- a powerful sorceress who can mysteriously bend people's will to do the most horrific acts against nature, man and God. His Grace, the king, however is remembered for having ushered in the Church of England...and for his six wives, many mistresses and of course -- nod to Britney -- that gluttonous chicken drumstick habit of pop culture lore. But at least he didn't end up with his head on a plank.

The aforementioned gruesome punishment is one historical fact that is woven through the novel as well as the film. You can't heighten the drama much more than decapitation. However, the book (and not the film) includes the sordid detail of Anne allegedly having an affair with her brother AND his gay lover. In the film, her brother and her are too traumatized to go through with the incest (intended to 'replace' a still birth and trick Henry), and he is heterosexual. Fictionalized history is murky, dangerous territory -- especially in this era of the sound byte, blog reporter, Wikipedia and 'video as fact.' In this capacity, The Other Boleyn Girl joins the ranks of other fictionalized biopics like Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, The Last King of Scotland and Becoming Jane. In so doing, it helps buoy a cinematic trend that although creative in spirit, serves the same purpose as Cliffs Notes do to high school students. It gives borderline illiterate dumb asses an easy -- albeit often erroneous -- way to remember the facts: Madonna/Whore. A+.

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