Philippa Lowthorpe’s ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ (2003)

08Apr09

In almost every respect, the modest BBC adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s bestselling novel The Other Boleyn Girl is superior to that of Justin Chadwick’s lavish blockbuster. Leads Jodhi May and Natascha McElhone far surpass Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson in the depth of their portrayals of Anne and Mary Boleyn. And though I have not read Gregory’s novel, I think I can fairly say that writer-director Philippa Lowthorpe’s screenplay offers a better treatment of the material. Lowthorpe keeps Anne and Mary’s relationship at the center of the film, making The Other Boleyn Girl actually about the other Boleyn girl.

Despite the superior acting and screenplay, I’m not in love with the digital video/handheld camerawork approach to the material, which sometimes made me feel as though I was watching someone’s home videos of a costume party. Though I’m sure that budget restrictions necessitated the DV, I don’t think the material merits the “gritty” handheld work and the to-the-camera confessionals feel straight out of reality TV. I’m accustomed to historical dramas being like Chadwick’s version: on film with beautiful photography and lavish set and costume design. The 1500s are a little too far removed from my everyday experience that not even a “cinéma vérité” approach can make me feel like I’m “really there.”

Where Chadwick’s film focuses on political machination, Lowthorpe concentrates on the restrictive roles of women in Tudor England. The ladies at court are either sleeping with the King for social gain, vying to become his mistress, or compelled to sleep with him despite their marital status. Their engagements must be approved of, and often matches are even made by, the King and the court. In Anne’s case, once she marries the King her worth becomes defined by her ability to produce a male heir. Her failure to do so puts her life at risk and drives her to committing incest with her brother to become pregnant. Anne sums up the pervasive attitude about women when she says, “What use is a girl?” as she lies crying after giving birth to a daughter. Indeed the social climate encourages a certain amount of self-loathing in women. Men call them whores with little provocation and, in Mary’s case, when they have no choice in sleeping with the King. Anne is beheaded on charges of adultery while Henry may court and sleep with as many women as he chooses. In fact, Anne even blames her failure to bear a son for causing Henry to stray. These Tudor women must be nice to look at, even in temperament, submissive to their husbands, and bear sons.

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