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The Other Boleyn Girl

(2008) ** Pg-13
116 min. Focus Features. Director: Justin Chadwick. Cast: Natalie Portman, Eric Bana, Scarlett Johansson, Tiffany Freisberg, Eddie Redmayne.

Following the lead of Philippa Gregory's novel, The Other Boleyn Girl sexes up the story of Anne and Mary Boleyn (Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johanssen), two potential mothers for the heir King Henry VIII (Eric Bana) can't get from his wife but so desperately desires. The film gets a full "This is a work of fiction" disclaimer, even noting that any resemblance to any person living or dead is unintentional. That tells you something about how much trust to put in these historical CliffsNotes.

The girls' father, Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance), and uncle, the Duke of Norfolk (Liam Neeson soundalike David Morrissey), conspire to improve the family fortunes by putting a Boleyn under the nose of Henry. His wife, Katherine of Aragon, has yet to produce a viable male heir, frustrating and alienating the king. Plans change when marriage-fodder Anne rubs Henry the wrong way and Mary accidentally piques his interest, causing a rift between the sisters. Screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen) depicts the girls as clawing for power and/or happiness, but because they live in a world only interested in whoring them out (as mom Kristin Scott Thomas bluntly puts it, Mary is being "traded like cattle for the advancement and amusement of men").

Despite this dollop of sympathy, the film imaginatively suggests the sisters were like Lynda Evans and Joan Collins on Dynasty. And King Henry's steely determination masks his own sympathetic inner hurt. He even puts the moves on Mary by telling her, "That's something I understand. What it is to be the second child. Forever in the shadows." Bana's the right casting to attempt to make credible this sexy, surprisingly sensitive revision of Henry, Johanssen drifts through moonily, and Natalie Portman proves herself a crack sobber, if less convincing in bitchy vamp mode.

Justin Chadwick's feature debut manages a surprisingly painterly quality when it goes outside with its hi-def camera, while the interiors remain moody and jittery.  As for the film's themes, they remain pretty much skin deep, though they catalog the gross of relationships of expediency that decimated the Boleyns, suggesting in the end that a pure heart saved the last girl standing. In the end, The Other Boleyn Girl comes off as more distasteful and dishonest than trashily entertaining.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby True HD 5.1 Surround

Street date: 6/10/2008

Distributor: Sony Home Entertainment

Sony's special edition Blu-Ray and DVD of The Other Boleyn Girl seems accurately to represent its HD-CAM source material. The detailed picture aesthetically suffers from extremities of color correction that give the film an unnatural look (particularly the sallow yellows), but it looks similar to the print I remember seeing in the theatre, and the Dolby True HD 5.1 surround track aurally brings that theatre experience home.

A commentary by director Justin Chadwick covers what attracted himself and his actors to this story, shooting in HD, casting Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johanssen as sisters, Eric Bana's generosity, and other thoughts about the characters and supporting actors. Chadwick also notes details on the locations and historical background. Sony also delivers another thorough Picture-in-Graphics track with "in-depth facts and trivia" on the history, characters, and life in 16th century England, as well as comparisons to the novel.

Next up is a generous selection of Deleted & Extended Scenes (23:46 with "Play All" option): "Mary's First Night" (1:09), "The Other Sister" (2:08), "What They Want Is You" (:50), "Mary's First Night with the King" (4:05), "The King's Fortune" (2:49), "William Asks for Forgiveness" (1:47), "Stafford Visits Mary" (3:05), "William Carey Dies" (1:01), "George Visits Mary at Church" (:43), "Anne Needs Mary" (1:36), "Anne Takes Little Henry" (3:12), and "Alternate Ending" (2:33).

Members of the Court: Character Biographies (16:48 with "Play All" option) offers brief profiles with friendly academic commentators. "Anne Boleyn" (3:17) collates comments by screenwriter Peter Morgan, author Philippa Gregory, USC professor Dr. Polly Ha, ASU professor Retha Warnicke, and Portman. "Mary Boleyn" (2:24) adds the thoughts of Johanssen. "King Henry VIII" (3:24) brings in Bana and UCLA professor Muriel C. McClendon. "Katherine of Aragon" (2:35) is next, followed by "George Boleyn" (2:22), which includes the thoughts of the actor to play him, Jim Sturgess. Last is "The Duke of Norfolk" (2:43), with additional participants David Morrissey and producer Alison Owen.

"To Be a Lady" (10:33) is a featurette on women in the 16th century and their attendant ettiquette; participants include Gregory, Warnicke, Portman, Kristin Scott Thomas, and etiquette coach Noel Butler. "Translating History to the Screen" (10:06) gathers Johanssen, Bana, Chadwick, Owen, and Morgan for a dissection of why the book was so popular and the choices made in adapting it. "Other Boleyn Girl Camera Tests—July 2006" (2:16) show the test footage taken on HD-CAM, narrated by Chadwick. Lastly, the disc includes previews for 21, Vantage Point, Across the Universe, The Jane Austen Book Club, Persepolis, Premonition, Made of Honor, and Prom Night.


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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