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Boleyn for Concubine

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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+.