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Extracted from a fat Philippa Gregory novel (the novel, that is, is fat), The Other Boleyn Girl doles out yet another installment in the long-running royal soap opera. Think of it as Elizabeth: The Genesis, an hysterical-historical story of court intrigue, concentrating heavily, and heavy-breathingly, on bedroom intrigue, the sibling rivalry over the affections of Henry VIII. The “other” Boleyn girl, as she is self-described in the dialogue, turns out to be the one we know best, Anne, the second wife of Henry, mother of Elizabeth (too peewee to be played here by Cate Blanchett), and famously cleaved at the neck. A saucy young lass, so bold as to use the word “thighs” in direct address to the King, she is also, in this telling (very different from Anne of the Thousand Days, with Genevieve Bujold), the “bad” Boleyn girl, despite the fact that she is the one who withholds her favors till after the wedding, a bit of leverage wielded with all the calculation of the classical femme fatale, the man-trap, the gold-digger, the home-wrecker, the bewitcher, enticing Henry (a brawny Eric Bana) to split not just with the sitting Queen but with the Pope in the bargain, and to situate himself at the head of the Church of England. The cool, porcelain Natalie Portman, looking like the snooty girl in the front row of freshman Physics, hardly seems at first glance to fill the bill, and in the final reckoning falls far short.

The “good” Boleyn girl, the lesser-known Mary, is the one who, while still a newlywed, has an earlier stint as the King’s mistress, although it’s made plain that that was a position she never sought nor desired. If the manipulative machinations of 16th-century male chauvinists did not make this plain enough, the pouty Scarlett Johansson makes it plainer, every now and then throwing off a look of compunction like that of a movie patron who opts, at the last instant at the multiplex box-office, to buy a ticket to 27 Dresses when she had set out with every intention to go to Atonement. At the sudsiest juncture, lathery in the manner of a mad dog, she would appear almost to have opted for Meet the Spartans. That’s when she witnesses her sister’s pitch to seduce their brother in hopes of replacing her lost fetus before her husband can find out about it. Without question it’s at that point that the viewer’s eyelids are most apt to rise higher than half-mast, the point where the creators — TV director Justin Chadwick, screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen), original novelist Philippa Gregory, whoever else — cheerfully corroborate the Crown’s smear campaign against Anne Boleyn, in effect endorsing her beheading, and standing in roughly the same relation to Henry as Fox News to George W. Bush. Quite apart from that, the big treat for me (though I can’t expect many to share in it) was seeing Ana Torrent in the role of Catherine of Aragon, thirty-some years after seeing her as the pint-sized heroine of Spirit of the Beehive, and seeing very little of her in the interim. Now a middle-aged woman of imposing presence, in that ardent, adamant, dignified Spanish way, she has a couple of strong scenes when backed into a corner by the cunning little vixen. She does not go meekly. And she keeps her head.

The Bank Job, starring Jason Statham and Saffron Burrows, claims also to be “based on a true story,” or anyway on a true bank job, the knockover of Lloyds Bank, Baker Street, London, 1971. The filmmakers, headed by the veteran Australian-born director Roger Donaldson and screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, have taken advantage of the cloak of mystery that still surrounds the case, to concoct a salacious hypothesis that can’t be disproved, other than by common sense. The British Secret Service, by this scenario, was the prime mover behind the raid, desirous of getting their hands on compromising pornographic photos of Princess Margaret — yes, Princess Margaret, cavorting with dark-skinned natives in the Caribbean — held in the safe-deposit box of a blackmailing Black Militant. But the way it goes down (as we say in the underworld), it is self-refuting. The notion that MI5, from a safe distance, and through a coerced middle-woman, would farm out the operation to an unknowing gang of petty criminals, novices at bank jobs, is ridiculous on the face of it. Ridiculous because of the high probability (assuming the novices could pull off the job in the first place) of its turning out exactly as it turns out on screen: the hot photos ending up in unpredictable hands. If a team of filmmakers can’t find a true story that’s any truer than this, they need to keep looking. Or better yet, start from scratch. The almost farcical complications, if taken with sufficient grains of salt, are diverting enough. And the Seventies period has its pleasures, not just the usual haircuts, bellbottoms, plaids, etc., but all that forgotten Black Power stuff, and most particularly the rolled-back level of technology: a simple jackhammer, a concrete-penetrating blowtorch, some walkie-talkies, and an amateur ham radio that chances to pick up the back-and-forth between the robbers in mid-job. A refreshing change, all that, from the computer-age hocus-pocus of Ocean’s Eleven, ...Twelve, ...Thirteen, and their ilk.

The Counterfeiters, from Austria, and from new-name director Stefan Ruzowitsky, is the recent Academy Award winner in the foreign-film category, for whatever that’s worth. (It is traditionally worth even less than the winners in the top categories.) Come to that, it is the only one of the five nominees to have so far reached our local screens. A Holocaust survival tale, loosely based on fact, it tells how “the world’s best counterfeiter” (the long, long face of Karl Markovics) eases his existence in a Nazi concentration camp by suppressing his scruples and aiding the German war effort, speedily mastering the British pound, but then dilly-dallying over the U.S. dollar, theoretically affecting the outcome of the war. It is a passably interesting tale to tell, a new path through old territory, but the interest is rather in the tale than in the telling. At any number of stopping points along the path, the sights are liable to seem all too familiar (the bullet in the head, etc.), never mind the refreshing route that led there. And the coarse, raw, desaturated image, whether a chosen cliché or an imposed hardship, is at no point much to look at, a harsh thing to say about a motion picture.

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mateu March 9, 2008 @ 12:40 a.m.

Duncan wrote:

Quite apart from that, the big treat for me (though I can’t expect many to share in it) was seeing Ana Torrent in the role of Catherine of Aragon,

Hopefully I am not alone in thinking you should give your loyal readers more credit, but perhaps living in Spain for a few years makes the difference. If you haven't seen Ana in Tesis, please consider giving that movie a look. In any case, thanks for the tip. It would be nice to see her act again.

best regards, Matt

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