Historical reality doesn't stand a chance in the hands of Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson in The Other Boleyn Girl, a film that takes the defining moments of the 16th-century Tudor court and coats them in soap opera suds. The director Justin Chadwick's salacious duelling-sisters saga may not quite live up to its high-minded aspirations (nor its trashy ones, for that matter), but it is certainly an enjoyable romp through the royal halls of Henry VIII's court. If nothing else, you will want to immediately Google the main players afterwards to help fill in the gaps left behind by this eye-candy-filled take on the period.
Based on the historical fiction novel by Philippa Gregory, the film tells the story of Anne (Natalie Portman) and Mary (Scarlett Johansson), daughters of the highly ambitious George Boleyn (Mark Rylance), who, with his brother-in-law, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey), concocts a plan to improve his family's standing. The king's wife, Catherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent), has failed to produce a male heir, and the macho monarch will no doubt soon seek solace elsewhere. Daddy decides that the smart and spirited Anne should provide it, and sees to it that she is thrust into Henry's path.
What our co-conspirators are not counting on is the newly married Mary catching the king's eye instead. So off the sisters go to court, where the wholesome Mary dutifully attends to the royal, falls in love and bears him a son. Meanwhile, the flirtatious Anne is banished to France, only to return with a feminist spring in her step and an undiminished desire for the king that involves royally messing with her sibling, playing hard to get, and, crucially, instigating a historic break from the Catholic Church so she can become queen (not so much glossed over as practically edited out in the film's jumpy final act). Of course, she too cannot give Henry the son and heir he desires, and we all know what the consequences of her failure are.
Lest you think the filmmakers are supportive of this sort of thing, the screenplay highlights the sheer depravity of it all through the voice of the girls' mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). The level-headed matriarch is pretty powerless here, but her blunt pronouncement that her children are being "traded like cattle for the advancement and amusement of men" hints at a moral outrage that is present but often overshadowed in this tale of immorality.
As Mary, the winsome Johansson is sweet and sedate, all doe-eyed stares and little else, borrowing heavily from her performance as the Girl With a Pearl Earring. Eric Bana's Henry Tudor is a bearded beefcake who glowers his way through the film. He is also a strangely emasculated presence - another instance of Hollywood not quite knowing what to do with this actor. But it is Portman who surprises the most. Her transformation from shameless flirt to conniving, would-be queen to hysterical pawn shows a depth and range of emotion that she has not exhibited before. The scene where she gives birth to a daughter, who would go on to become Elizabeth I, is raw and powerful.
Despite its weighty subject matter, there are few reasons to take The Other Boleyn Girl seriously, and the admittedly lush-looking film is edited in a way that all but banishes any real emotion. But there's no denying its sudsy appeal, even if it can't quite get its head around the gravitas of the situation.