Take several lengths of the most beautiful green, saffron or blue satin you can find and cut them into precise Tudor fashion. Trim the gown with fake ermine and embroidered stars and put it under studio lamps or even natural candlelight, where it will gleam with a life of its own. It’ll just about pulse with history, in fact, and it will be a powerful draw onscreen, surrounded by authentic Renaissance architecture, or pristine English forests, or yards of rich fabric draped from bed canopies. A dress like that deserves to be honored with a great period production, but instead — more and more, it seems — it winds up being the most impressive thing about the mediocre, or even laughably ridiculous, costume dramas cluttering up our theaters. If you don’t pour an actor into your gown who can do it justice, and let it move through an atmosphere of convincing dialogue and story, you may as well stick it on a pedestal and glass it in; as a dead exhibit, at least, nothing can interfere with its loveliness or with the historical associations it conjures up, which are otherwise muddied and exploited and made ludicrous by ludicrous filmmaking (and — I suspect in this case — ludicrous source material, though I haven’t read the bodice-ripper it’s based on).
The latest adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s novel, The Other Boleyn Girl (it was first a BBC production in 2003), is also the latest period drama that suffers from Empty Dress Syndrome. I’m starting to panic — I haven’t seen a decent costume drama for a while, now, and my resentment is building to a pitch (and for our commentators who gripe about filmmakers’ obsessions with the period surrounding the reign of Elizabeth I, this may be the movie that puts the kibosh on the Tudors for a while; its stench will be a long time dissipating, y’all). The tide is so toxic, I can’t even look forward to this year’s The Duchess, which is set in the century I’ve devoted my life to, professionally — and to which I’m therefore programmed to respond with hardened nipples — but which has been Keira-Knightleyed to a wigged peak and looks as hollow as its star’s collar-bones. The costumed crop released in association with Hollywood studios in recent years has struggled to rise above its genre — neither American nor British period movies seem able to operate outside of unintentional parodic mode, and it’s making a mockery of my corsets and history, dammit, and I want to dress myself up like Marie-Antoinette and roll around in a froth of petticoats, crush petit-fours in my hands and have a regal temper tantrum over the whole thing. Of course, the dresses and even the history are part of the problem; not to rehash the obvious, but audiences and directors alike are too easily seduced by the power of the costume — beads and feathers are pretty (and men in frock-coats will always turn my head) but they’re no substitute for actual filmmaking, and they seem to be sucking all the ability out of writers, directors and actors who are enchanted into idiocy by shiny accessories that can’t do their fucking job for them.
Director Justin Chadwick lets The Other Boleyn Girl slide into a farce. The movie opens on a group of children playing in a field of goldenrods, blissfully unaware of their future political struggles at court. I suspect this is an intentional duplication of the opening scene of Kapur’s Elizabeth (whose story is linked to her mother Anne Boleyn’s), but the reference is too ersatz to function as a sober allusion to the other film; it just feels like uninspired mimicry — a genre pitfall that has become as common as the image of the messenger riding his horse violently through the woods with Bad News From Court (which, true to formula, happens twice in The Other Boleyn Girl, and extra-violently, at that). One of these children is Mary Boleyn, who grows up to be Scarlett Johansson, and another is her sister Anne, who grows up to be Natalie Portman; it’s a sad testament to an actor’s inability to disappear into her dress when even Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays their mother, levels off and stabilizes as Kristin Scott Thomas — and when Scarlett Johansson’s doughy-moue approach to acting is more convincing than Natalie Portman’s Our Town histrionics. Both young women wind up in the bed of a Henry VIII disillusioned with his queen, and their rivalry and romantic roundabouts, podged onto the scandal of Katherine of Aragon’s succession by Anne Boleyn, make up the meat of the story. This particular Henry VIII is blandly portrayed by Eric Bana, who I’ve seen give off personality in other films, so I know he has it in him. Here, he’s buried under eighty pounds of Renaissance man-fur and the porridge of a lifeless script, and he nearly put me to sleep every time he walked onscreen. This is saying a lot when you factor in the film’s contriving to depict as many seduction scenes as possible, none of which hits the mark it aims for, whether it’s the titillation of the Shivering Virgin set-up, the fire of the Passionate Forbidden Union, or the horror of Being Raped by the King of England But — Because It’s History as Romance — Not Really.
I think I was supposed to feel alternately turned on by the film, and sympathetic towards the figures facing the headsman’s ax, and angered by the way 16th century daughters (and sons) were traded like poker chips between aristocratic families, and exalted by Anne’s coronation scene, but the only sensation that rose out of me was laughter. Repeatedly. I’m no royalist, but I’ve always felt that great costume dramas should hit you with the same kind of awe Ye Olde Subjects were supposed to feel in the presence of their monarch — in The Other Boleyn Girl, unfortunately, even those scenes which bear the authority of actual history come across as preposterous. In no way does Portman’s Anne Boleyn seem like the kind of monumental figure who could drive Henry VIII to break with the Catholic Church (along with his need for a legitimate male heir), especially considering that the script’s focus on the other Boleyn girl — Scarlett-Mary — ensures that Henry’s interest in the duller sister is the most palpable love-affair onscreen. Natalie-Anne’s coronation scene is so completely over-the-top stupid that I actually wished Pajiba readers were sitting in the theater with me, at the time, and witnessing it for themselves. It almost has to be seen to be believed. Words fail me — I’m running out of synonyms for “ridiculous”. Normally I can get behind a movie that transforms a moment of history into high Gothic — with plenty of enclosed females, and ominous shots of houses full of domestic danger — but The Other Boleyn Girl is a complete waste of wimples. The sisters’ rivalry is uninteresting, the patriarchy is predictable, the anachronisms are glaring, and I couldn’t even get a sick camp-pleasure over the depiction of Scarlett-Mary’s pregnancy with the King’s bastard, when her forced bed-rest pulls out all the Gothic stops, barred windows and all.
Rather than directing his leads into vibrant, credible people, or creating a script appropriate to its story, Chadwick (or was it Philippa Gregory?) seems determined to tailor his costume drama for undergraduates in first-year History or Anthropology or Women’s Studies classes — some neat little package that illustrates the realities of aristocratic marriage in past times. The movie jabbed its finger up my nostril and led me around by the nose from start to finish, making sure I learned its lesson thanks to much repetition on the same theme: children are chattel in empire-building, marriage is a matter for parents and kings to decide, and women’s sexuality is forced to conform to male schedules. David Morrissey plays yet another nefarious Norfolk — here he’s the Boleyn girls’ uncle, and the primary force in whoring out Mary to the King and inspiring Anne to entrap him with her Ave/Eva wiles. It’s not that these situations or behaviors were never a reality (though I hear Gregory’s novel takes more license with historical fact than I do with polysyllables), and it’s not that I have a problem with didacticism in art, or even the collapsing of history into fictional fancy. It’s the soppy execution that pisses me off, and the fact that this execution has become the norm for a genre I can’t help but love. The Other Boleyn Girl, with its Hollywood tits and historical static and gowns that may as well be empty, they’re so ill-used, can’t even be enjoyed as sheer spectacle; it’s an insulting costume drama made for people to watch in their stupidest moments, and I don’t give two shakes of a dag how “elitist” that comes across — I’m fed up and demand a return to at least the pretension of quality. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on March 1, 2008.)