There’s nothing more fascinating than royals. When it involves Henry VIII’s relationship not only with Anne Boleyn but her sister as well, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood caught on. Adapted from the trend-setting 2001 bestseller, THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL is a bodice-ripper of the most melodramatic kind. The whole film is a bit ridiculous, but made manageable by its outstanding production values and a surprising performance from Scarlett Johansson.
Young Anne (Natalie Portman) and Mary (Johansson) are the Boleyn sisters, growing up in the midst of Henry VIII’s (Eric Bana) court. But his marriage with Catharine of Aragon is failing; after the latest failed attempt to give birth to a male heir, the girls’ uncle (David Morrissey) is certain that the king will be looking for a mistress, and believe Anne is the perfect candidate that could catapult the entire Boleyn family into wealth and power. But not all goes as planned; the king turns his eye to the recently-wed Mary, and a bitter rivalry ignites between the sisters. The tryst goes on for years, with both sisters playing for the king’s affections until Anne decides to put herself in the highest place of all; as Henry’s queen.
The film would not be quite so insufferably soap opera-ish were it not for the jealous, seething and ruthless portrayal of Anne Boleyn. Midway through the film, when Anne is called from France to return to court and seduce the king, she is given a montage as if Freddy Kruger or Michael Meyers were being resurrected. What surrounds it is a large quantity of Anne either glaring at people or delivering sexually-tinged comebacks. It is a credit that Portman manages to lose her typical cutesiness and inject a few moments of genuine smolder, but she becomes rather trying and overtly weepy towards the end. It’s understandable that one would be upset when about to be decapitated, but when all she does is cry for the final half-hour of the film, it gets a bit old.
The real (and only) surprise here is Johansson, who gives an impressive performance playing against type. Anne is every bit the demure and innocent girl who finds herself in over her head. As she begins to realize the extent of the relationship between her sister and the man she loves, her emotions are effective without falling into the level of melodrama that everyone else falls victim to. As Henry, Bana is not much more than a thing to be looked at or, more often, talked about.
The production values are understandably impressive, with the exception of the film’s grubby cinematography and curious use of handheld cameras. Director Justin Chadwick tries to inject the film with the same kind of modernity found in the most recent PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, but seems to think that shaking the camera around a bit is the only way to do this. Peter Morgan’s script is a far cry from the sharp wit and affecting nature of his work for THE QUEEN two years earlier.
All in all, the film may be a diversion for those who appreciate a decent period film, especially if they can get past the historical inaccuracies, which are doubtlessly many. The premise has enough potential, but when the entire thing plays like an expensive episode of DAYS OF OUR LIVES, everything comes off a bit forced and fake. Royals are still fascinating, but surely they must have done something other than betray each other, have sex and cry. Supposedly they ran countries as well, but THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL apparently doesn’t find that worthy of examination.