Viewer Guide: A River Runs Through It and The Other Boleyn Girl

December 27, 2019 | Richard Peña


A River Runs Through It (1992)

This week’s classic is A River Runs Through It, a 1992 drama directed by Robert Redford.

Adapted from the 1976 autobiographical novella by Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It stars Craig Sheffer as Maclean, with Brad Pitt in an early career breakout performance as his younger brother Paul. Primarily set during the prohibition years of the 1920s in the majestic mountain country of Missoula, Montana, the film follows the brothers devoted but sometimes volatile relationship from childhood days into their young adulthood. Raised under the no-nonsense tutelage of their straitlaced father, a Presbyterian minister played by Tom Skerritt, Norman and Paul grow up equally steeped in religious doctrine as well as the art of fly fishing, a recreational pastime that takes on a spiritual dimension for the men of the Maclean family. Older brother Norman seems more naturally inclined towards studiousness; Paul on the contrary contains an irreverent wild streak, along with an inborn fearlessness that can sometimes transform him into reckless daredevil. Although coming from the same roots, the brothers’ distinct personalities will lead them to mature in dramatically different directions.

Also featured as Norman and Paul’s mother is Brenda Blethyn, with Emily Lloyd as the fun-loving but self-possessed young woman who catches Norman’s eye.

After retiring from his 45-year career as an English Professor at the University of Chicago in 1973, Norman Maclean wrote his first book “A River Runs Through It” at the age of 70, finally addressing his long unspoken grief over his brother’s death some 35 years earlier. A sleeper success that was ultimately on the short list for the Pulitzer Prize, this thinly-veiled autobiographical novel quietly explored the wrenching consequences of a young man’s inability to ask for help—as well as his family’s inability to give it. The story resonated deeply with director Robert Redford, whose own upbringing shared some similarities with Maclean’s life story. Suspicious of Hollywood, the taciturn Maclean had rebuffed many a film offer, necessitating several visits from Redford in order to strike an acceptable deal: Maclean was allowed to approve the screenplay adaptation by Richard Friedenberg, but once he had signed off he agreed not to participate in the movie’s production. Friedenberg then had to confront the challenge of adapting the 104-page novella—with 52 pages of it devoted to fly fishing—into a workable film narrative. For the crucial role of Paul, Redford cast Brad Pitt fresh off his memorable appearance in Thelma & Louise, giving the young actor the chance to prove he was much more than just a flash in the pan sex symbol. Like Redford, Pitt’s conservative family background had a lot of resonance with the story, yet Pitt would later refer to the film as one of his “weakest performances,” although he compared working with Redford to playing tennis with a stronger opponent who forces you to improve your game. Unfortunately, Norman Maclean himself did not live to see the finished film, passing away two years before its theatrical release in October 1992.


The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

This week’s indie is The Other Boleyn Girl, a 2008 historical drama directed by Justin Chadwick.

Based on the best-selling novel by Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl offers a different perspective on the early reign of Henry VIII, portrayed this time around by Eric Bana. Yet instead of rehashing the frequently dramatized story of Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn, played by Natalie Portman, the narrative focuses on Anne’s sister, Mary, played by Scarlett Johansson, who in fact preceded her sibling in having an affair with the Tudor king. The time is somewhere around 1520, and Henry’s eleven-year marriage to his first wife Catherine of Aragon is in serious trouble due to the lack of a male heir. The king’s increasing desperation to establish a desirable royal succession sets the stage for some intense palace intrigue. Enter Thomas Boleyn and Thomas Howard, the father and uncle of Mary and Anne played by Mark Rylance and David Morrissey. Seeing an opportunity to improve the family’s impoverished circumstances, the duo devise a plan to entice Henry into a romantic affair with Anne, with the goal of maneuvering a royal title and corresponding fortune for the family. Regarded as the more sophisticated of the two sisters, Anne’s initial introduction to Henry doesn’t exactly go off as planned, with the king’s interest unexpectedly veering toward Mary. With Anne sent away on an unofficial “banishment” to the French court, Mary’s relationship with Henry escalates rapidly, much to the consternation of her father and uncle. And watching it all from the sidelines is Mary and Anne’s mother, played Kristin Scott Thomas, all too aware of the dangerous game into which her daughters have been thrust.

Also featured in supporting roles are Jim Sturgess as George Boleyn, Mary and Anne’s brother, Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne in early career appearances, playing the other men in Mary’s life.

From Anne of a Thousand Days to Wolf Hall, the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn has been frequent historical fare for theater, film and television. And to its credit, The Other Boleyn Girl offers some intriguing new suppositions, even while taking some dubious dramatic license with a number of historical facts concerning the Tudors. Contrary to the sibling birth order presented in the film, it’s believed that Mary was the elder sister, and rather than being a demure innocent, she had already preceded her sister with a notorious residency at the French court, acquiring a promiscuous reputation that included a likely affair with King François I. The sisters were not known to have been especially close, with Mary’s post-Henry “love match” marriage to the lowly William Stafford triggering Anne’s disapproval and resulting in Mary’s eviction from court. Furthermore, after Mary’s departure from London there’s no evidence that the sisters ever saw each other again before Anne’s execution in 1536. Screenwriter Peter Morgan’s penchant for dramatizing tales of palace intrigue reached full flower with the modern day royal saga of Queen Elizabeth II, first with Helen Mirren’s Oscar-winning turn in The Queen and its stage follow-up The Audience, and most recently with Netflix’s blockbuster series, The Crown.

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