Historical soap opera better on TV

Posted: Thursday, April 03, 2008

The oversexed soap opera that history remembers as "The Tudors" migrates from Showtime, the natural home to the sordidly sexual, to the big screen in "The Other Boleyn Girl."

Courtesy Of Columbia Pictures
Courtesy Of Columbia Pictures

It's lovely period piece, but a major motion picture that has the extreme misfortune of coming along hot on the heels of a more fleshed out and fleshy season of the cable series that covers almost exactly the same ground.

Better cast and much more handsomely mounted than "The Tudors," this "Boleyn" suffers from a wealth of promises it fails to keep, sort of like Henry VIII, the my-bed-or-your-head monarch who is the "hero" on TV, a principal villain here.

A delicious first hour introduces us to the scheming Boleyn clan, lesser lights at court until an uncle, The Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey, utterly cold-blooded), talks his equally ambitious and weak-willed brother-in-law (Mark Rylance, simpering) into offering up first one then the other of his fair daughters as a lure to the wandering eye of Henry, played with brooding, beard-rubbing lust by Eric Bana.

Anne (Natalie Portman) is the natural first choice in Henry bait. The king's Catholic Spaniard wife, Catherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent, properly plain and proud), can't give him a son. He will cast about for a mistress or some other solution to his "no male heir" problem. Anne is no shrinking violet. She's mercenary enough to relish the challenge.

"Love is no value without power or position," she reckons. So she aims for two out of three.

But Henry is smitten by Mary (Scarlett Johansson), Anne's demure and newly married younger sister. She resists as he makes arrangements to bring her within his reach, but watch how Johansson plays Mary's moment of surrender when she realizes that this heel pursuing her is the man who actually "gets" her.

Sisters wanting the same man ensures us of an epic catfight, which the Peter Morgan ("The Queen") script can't quite deliver. As good as his writing often is, here he works overtime to dumb this thing down. Characters are forever stating the obvious.

"So, this is it," Mary purrs, "where the King of England sleeps."

Clever lass. The guy's in his jammies, for Peter Morgan's sake!

The sex is discrete and underscored with violins. After all, this isn't Showtime.

Laugh-out-loud moments of sibling rivalry in the first hour give way to groaning summations of the dangerous game these women are being forced to play in the second. At least Mom (Kristin Scott Thomas, divine) puts up a fight.

Despite many emotional moments supplied by the leads, especially by Portman, the better actress, "The Other Boleyn" suds up into nothing more than historical soap opera. We're treated to the odd pretty location, stunning costumes and a tendency to truncate history, time and events to wrap up this complicated blood-letting in under two hours.

Oh, and there's one wowza of a "Sophie's Choice" scene for Anne, one provided by "Other Boleyn" novelist Phillipa Gregory.

Whatever its virtues, this is entirely too much melodrama to cram into a feature film. Characters are lost, too much happens off camera, and the whole compacted thing feels like Reader's Digest history.

And the lesson the Oscar-winning producer Scott Rudin ("No Country for Old Men") can take from this?

Soap operas belong on TV.



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