Saturday, March 22, 2008

Scarlett Johansson and the modern costume epic


Generally bad reviews for The Other Boleyn Girl, which seems odd to me. Most bad films still manage to get good reviews, and this one was quite good. The fact that it is as often as not compared unfavourably to the same screenwriter’s Last King of Scotland and The Queen gives the game away here: the film is basically being attacked for not being relevant and edgy and contemporary, all the things that the BFI used to get so sniffy about when reviewing Merchant Ivory movies.

I rather like popular historical epics; I go along entirely with the thesis of the late great George MacDonald Fraser’s Hollywood History of the World, which showed how the old saw about them all being ludicrous travesties is, in the overwhelming majority of cases, demonstrably untrue. It’s basically snobbery, though the snobbery of historical purists has now been replaced by the snobbery of social realists, outraged at the mere existence of a film not set amongst the small-animal torturers of some blighted Midlands council estate.
So here I am defending a new film against its critics. It’s not great, but it is good, and it is serious, and after sitting through no fewer than six obscenely wasteful car adverts (I pray no man hates another as much as I hate cars), and trailers for a plethora of films in which even greater sums are frittered on the realisation of puerile fantasy, it is refreshing to see a large budget being used for the much nobler purpose of recreating reality.

Surely this is what budgets are for: to bring the past, or some hard to imagine real event (as in Titanic, for instance), to stunning, convincing life - not to bring comics to life. And in fact, the film achieves a texture unlike any other Tudor movie I have seen: it could, in fact, be the most visually convincing recreation of the period yet.
The director's passion for shooting scenes through partially obscured apertures - lattice work, mullioned windows and, relentlessly, chinks in slightly ajar doors - can get a little monotonous, and still we have that annoying sound effect, a stupid ‘ching’ noise, that has accompanied all stabbings and sword blows in American films since the early nineties. How hard can it be to record a new one?
But the photography is gorgeous, and all costumes, set dressing and location work without fault.
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The girls are both good. I’m never sure what I think about Scarlett Johansson: I have a soft spot for her largely because of Ghost World, but I also admire her commitment to an extremely old-fashioned concept of Hollywood glamour that eschews the fake Oxfam hypocrisy of her generation in favour of Jean Harlow gowns and an excess of red lipstick; she’s not afraid to risk looking like a dog’s dinner at premieres and interviews. And more interesting films than most of her peers, too, including some that are genuinely fine (Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Prestige). I do also like Lost in Translation, though it is obviously a hundredth of the film it was hailed as. On the other hand, there is something about her persona that can seem a little alienating, a touch narcissistic, and she has shamelessly played concubine to the very worst elements of modern culture: pop music, fashion and brand-endorsement advertising. (Her recent stooping to a ‘role’ in a misogynistic pop video for that absurd pipsqueak idiot Justin Timberlake is a near-fatal error in taste and judgement.)
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Natalie Portman is technically on my banned list owing to her involvement in V For Vendetta, a film which, if remembered at all (an unlikely prospect, I’ll admit), will come to be recognised as our generation’s Triumph of the Will, a shocking display of cultural tyranny disguised as protest and a work of loathsome consensus propaganda, though it obviously lacks any of Triumph’s merits as cinema. She looks and sounds rather like Keira Knightley, who probably turned the role down before she got to it. There is, surely, box office in a Scarlett-Keira collaboration. Until it happens, Keira has got one about the Duchess of Devonshire on the way soon.
This is good costumey stuff, and that future audiences will find more in it than in anything by Mike Leigh surely goes without saying.