When King Henry VIII's (Eric Bana, "Munich") older Queen, Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent, "The Spirit of the Beehive," "The Nest"), miscarries yet again, his obsession with begetting a male heir divides the formerly strong marriage. Seeing a political opportunity, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey, "Basic Instinct 2," "The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep") consults with brother-in-law Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance, "Intimacy") who proposes his own eldest daughter, Anne (Natalie Portman, "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium"), to warm the King's bed. But when Anne's impetuousness causes the King an ego-wounding tumble from his horse, his eye is caught by the one who tends him - younger, married sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson, "The Nanny Diaries"), "The Other Boleyn Girl."
If you thought "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" was over the top, just wait until you get a load of how her mother is portrayed in this risible soap opera. The now hunky Henry (Bana looks nothing like any portraiture of Henry VIII) is a King led by his codpiece, caught between the pure and genuinely fond Mary and the conspiring, ambitious Anne. Portman acts up a storm as the scheming seductress while Johansson replays her "Girl with a Pearl Earring" performance note for note. "The Other Boleyn Girl" works on the level of chick lit trash, but given its pedigree points towards more proof that there really is something to the rumored Eric Bana curse.
After a prologue in which Sir Thomas and his wife Lady Elizabeth (Kristin Scott Thomas, "The English Patient," "The Valet") size up their toddling children's prospects, we're introduced to the adult Boleyn sibs on the day of Mary's wedding to merchant Sir William Carey (Benedict Cumberbatch, "Amazing Grace," "Atonement"). The elder Anne has been held back for a loftier match and as she and equally political brother George (Jim Sturgess, "Across the Universe") dance, she makes eyes at Henry Percy (Oliver Coleman), the betrothed son of the county's largest landowner. Much is made of the virginal Anne's inability to council her sister on her wedding night (isn't this mom's role?) and of Mary's admission the next day that the evening wasn't exactly bliss.
When the King arrives, at first Anne seems on course, but after that riding accident, the quieter Mary, who professes no desire other than to raise a family in the country, captures Henry's fancy. She's bidden to his Queen's court as is her husband to his - effectively separating their living quarters. Mary is seduced by the gentle King when he speaks of their mutual second sibling status and all are overjoyed when she becomes pregnant - until, that is, her frailty imprisons her (literally) to early bed rest. Meanwhile, headstrong Anne has eloped with Percy, but fearing scandal the family sends him back to his betrothed and exiles Anne to France, sweeping the marriage (and its consummation) under the rug. When Mary's banishment to bed is seen as new opportunity for the King's eye to wander, Anne is returned to court to keep him focused, but the manipulative sister draws attention to herself. Using hard-to-get tactics, Anne whips the King into a lustful frenzy until he is willing to humiliate his good wife with a trial for treason and sever England's ties with the Vatican.
Adapting the Philippa Gregory novel, screenwriter Peter Morgan ("The Queen") fails to blend the blacks and whites so that the Boleyn girls are painted as a scheming bitch and a cowed doormat, daughters of a privileged, educated woman who married beneath her for love and the spineless, sniveling husband trying to make up for it by toadying to his brother-in-law and using his children as pawns. Oh for the subtlety and wit of a Jane Austen to comment upon her own country's history. Director Justin Chadwick, who exhibited chops for literary adaptation with Masterpiece Theater's "Bleak House", has inherited Shekhar Kapur's recent weakness for shallow romance and hysteria, the latter of which at least adds some fire to the accusations of witchery levied at the elder Boleyn.
Portman simpers, flounces, rebels and panics, the 'bad girl' to Johansson's namby-pamby good while Bana all but disappears within an ill written role. Ana Torrent, however, the child star of "The Spirit of the Beehive" makes for such a compelling Katherine, one wishes the film's focus had been on her Queen rather than those who would steal her crown. Eddie Redmayne ("Elizabeth: The Golden Age") projects decency amidst the mire in a small role as William Stafford, a family adjunct loyal to Mary.
"The Other Boleyn Girl" succeeded in one thing - it gave me the urge to revisit "Anne of a Thousand Days." Later this year we have director Phillip Noyce's ("Rabbit-Proof Fence," "The Quiet American") version of "Mary Queen of Scots." It stars Scarlett Johansson. Hopefully strong direction will make something of it but my hopes are hardly high.
Robin did not see this film.
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