Saturday, December 20, 2008

Frost/Nixon & The Other Boleyn Girl, or How I liked the other Peter Morgan film better

Frost/Nixon
Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Peter Morgan
Starring: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Rebecca Hall, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt & Matthew McFayden

Adapted from Morgan's play of the same name, it follows Richard Nixon and David Frost as they prepare for the TV showdown of the century, in a set of interviews following Nixon's resignation after the Watergate scandal. B

The Other Boleyn Girl
Directed by Justin Chatwin
Written by Peter Morgan
Starring: Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Jim Sturgess, David Morrissey & Mark Rylance

Adapted from Philippa Gregory's novel of the same name, it follows Anne and Mary Boleyn as they prepare for the sexual showdown of the century, in a set of romance plots following Katherine of Aragon's 'resignation' after she fails to give Henry VIII a male heir. B

If I have been glib in trying to find mirrors between these two Peter Morgan penned adaptations it is because I do believe there is much to be glimpsed at in Morgan's selection. At the heart of these two films we have a confrontation between two strong-willed characters, and they both end with the least-likely of the two succeeding. And yet, for all the flack TOBG got upon release (hanging at a mere 41% on Rotten Tomatoes compared to F/N's healthy 90%) I believe (despite Chatwin's boresome and infuriating direction - can you please not obstruct your actors with windows, ledges, gates!) the Portman/Johansson film is a much more enjoyable ride. Maybe I'm comparing apples and oranges but the historical drama meets soap opera of 16th C England is much more engrossing and vibrant than Morgan's own fictional dallying into late 20th C media politics. 

The reason? Their respective reach. 

Frost/Nixon is a tour de force commentary on the way media and politics came to a(n albeit rocky and tempestuous) marriage by the late twentieth century most prominently through the figure of Richard Nixon. It is also a great actor's showcase - more adequate for the stage, I presume, than for Howard's directed screen (a snore all the way through, if you want to credit the film for its depiction of 1970s life, credit Howard's production team not himself; all he gives are dull shot A, shot B scenes - no flair, and maybe the material needed none, but then one has to wonder why translate it to silver screen if it's gonna look like a filmed performance?). That said, Langella did little for me as Nixon - maybe I'm adverse to such mimicry? while Sheen and the ensemble cast (especially Hall and Bacon) really hit it out of the park for me, though not enough to fall in love with the film. I'll blame it on my age: really, two duelling white old(er) dudes are not really my fancy, especially when they seem to be engaging only when they're lifting its source material word by word from the small screen to... the silver screen, to little or no effect. Also, the docu-feel of all of it works really well on paper (Morgan's play employs it well to give insight into the characters in soliloquies) yet it seems too contrived for the realistic feel Howard/Morgan seem to be aiming for.

The Other Boleyn Girl on the other hand (maybe to much of its disadvantage) aims to cover a lot more ground and a lot more depth: what is TOBG if not an exploration of gender dynamics in dynastic 16th C England, an analysis of the political world of the times and an apropos (and more nuanced, I think) performance of 'corrupt power'? True, the plot starts losing some steam after we enter the last third of the film and some of the film's original intensity lags - especially considering we all know the outcome of Anne's gambles. It's true, I didn't love this film - but I did love Natalie (can we please ask her to play a bitch more often?) and Sandy Powell's costumes are enough to warrant the price of the ticket. To see Portman's character go from sly sister, to sexual seductress, to power-hungry mistress and later to become a powerless, slain queen is much more riveting than watching Nixon give you a five minute drunken scene where he's shown as 'vulnerable' but which has little or no weight on his character arc (what with it being a fictional scene and all) by the end of the film. 

2 comments:

Dame James Henry said...

I absolutely love the ballsy-ness of The Other Boleyn Girl. Like you mentioned, it's not a great film, but it's a fun time (who knew 16th century royalty politics could be so lively and bitchy?). My favorite scene in any movie this year (so far) has to be the one in which Natalie Portman (fantastic performance, by the way) has to get pregnant to save her life and she must choose the most unlikely candidate to do it with. I swear to God I went through about 4 emotions in 10 seconds during that scene. Absolutely genius.

Michael Parsons said...

Eric Bana in any form of undress will always win in my books!