From the Berlinale: Justin Chadwick's 'The Other Boleyn Girl'

Sometimes a film is just a pleasure. The consensus at Berlin was not to bother watching "The Other Boleyn Girl," based on Philippa Gregory's eponymous novel, and I was so glad I snuck in anyway.
03/28/2008 02:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sometimes a film is just a pleasure. The consensus at Berlin was not to bother watching Justin Chadwick's "The Other Boleyn Girl," based on Philippa Gregory's eponymous novel, and I was so glad I snuck in anyway. The drama is clear and well-directed: the two Boleyn girls, Anne and Mary (played by the equally sensuous Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson), both vie for the sexual attentions of Henry 8th. At first, Anne is the loser, as Mary--in a role reminiscent of sweet-natured Melanie in "Gone With the Wind"--and Henry VIII make love in an erotic blend of white frothy nightgown and muscular flesh. Yet Anne, feisty as Scarlet O'Hara, schemes to outdo her sister, not only getting Henry VIII to turn his gaze (and make love to her in a near-rape scene), but also convincing him to banish her own sister to the countryside.

The intensity of the film lies in the loyalty, none-the-less, between the two sisters. Tender-hearted Mary will defend her manipulative impish sister to the end, even when Anne's head is about to be sliced off with a thin bladed sword (this does not, I imagine, give away the plot). Having a through-thick-and-thin relationship with my own sister, I personally was more than open to this sentimental theme.

Besides it is so well-done.

The shots are poised and well-timed: each dedicated to a dramatic speech of one or the other sister, and of course a few offerings from the sexy king himself (played by Eric Bana). The costumes designed by Sandy Powell are exquisite, using the color palette of 16th century portrait artist Hans Holbein: we enjoy Anne's face framed with an angular headdress, whether emerald green or deep purple-blue, her eyes bright and alive, as well as Mary confined to her bed, in her pregnancy, in the light colors of a castle dream.

What Chadwick does best is simplify: nothing is extraneous to the drama of the sisters. By doing so, the historical movie has a crisp contemporary feel--almost feminist (although the emphasis is on getting a man). Johansson at the press conference commented that "as Jewish girls from New York, it was tough to be in these corsets: they constrained our every move." Portman added: "This is a movie about how women fight for power in a world dominated by men." Asked whether between love or power, which would she choose, Portman got a rise of laughter (and burst into embarrassed giggles herself) when she said: "Power, of course."

The two actresses said they felt sisterly in the making of the film, and while of course this is a publicity comment, it is nonetheless compelling to have an old royal story emphasizing female complicity--for a change. The ending shot of a little red-haired girl on the grass (guess who?) is a fresh surprise.