Philippa Gregory's Novel Gets Shackled

Maui Time | February 18, 2008
Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson make a handsome, if redundantly costumed, pair of 16th century English sisters in this half-hearted period drama set between King Henry VIII's noble court and his volatile bedroom. Eric Bana is miscast as the King and an otherwise enjoyable Natalie Portman soaks the film's third act in so many tears that a puddle forms. Adapted from Philippa Gregory's 2002 novel, the potentially captivating subject of two sisters put before a womanizing king by their power-hungry father and uncle, is alas much less than the sum of its parts. The King's deviating devotion to the girls leaves a trail of pain and betrayal that can only be absolved with the aid of a sacrifice. The screenwriter just didn't leave enough narrative meat on the bone to make this story work.

A rushed first act introduces the rural-dwelling family of Mary (Johansson) and Anne (Portman) Boleyn. The girls' mother, Lady Elizabeth (Kristin Scott Thomas), and father, Sir Thomas (Mark Rylance), have access to the King through Elizabeth's brother, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey), who sees opportunity written on the miscarriage of the King's would-be male heir by his Queen, Catherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent). Mary is the older Boleyn sister and widely considered the homelier of the two girls, however absurd the idea that Scarlett Johansson could be considered uncomely by any standard. Sir Thomas and the Duke hatch a plan to invite their notoriously lusty King for a foxhunt that will allow the headstrong Anne to make her availability as a mistress known to the King. The plan backfires when Anne gives Henry such fierce competition during the hunt that he takes a spill that wounds his pride as much as his backside. The filmmakers allow the scene to play off-camera, and squander a potentially meaningful opportunity to see the characters interacting in a socially charged setting. It's an example of the clumsy storytelling that screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen) exhibits repeatedly in an adaptation that should have been a sure thing.

The disastrous event causes Henry to take note of the recently married Mary for a new surrogate wife. Without fanfare, Mary and Anne are invited to take up residence in the King's palace where Mary's new husband William (Benedict Cumberbatch) takes a position in the King's inner circle to distract him from the pimping out of his young wife. For a moment the film takes wing as romantic sparks fly between King Henry and Mary in a seduction scene that results in pregnancy. But the King's blood runs hot and cold as he orders Mary to be kept in her room for the duration of the term. Out of anger at her sister's perceived betrayal, Anne elopes with a lower class boy. Only too happy to brag about the consummation of her shortly annulled marriage, Anne is exiled to France by her father to learn some manners. Here again the screenwriter takes a misstep by not including any scenes of Anne's time abroad that might inform her subsequent decisions that fire the story's head-rolling third act.

With Mary giving birth to a girl, Sir Thomas and the Duke send for Anne's return with the promise that she is changed. However, Anne's transformation is only that she is more determined and ambitious than ever. King Henry's attention turns to the unattainable Anne who takes control of her father's and uncle's scheming to manipulate her way into the Queen's chair. Natalie Portman cranks up her character's arrogance level and we get a fleeting glimpse of the story's dramatic grist before Anne's plans fail to tear-soaked effect.

From the redundant use of similarly styled dresses, it seems that costume designer Sandy Powell (The Aviator) was limited by budgetary or time constraints from creating a diverse collection of clothing. To see two characters wearing the same dress, albeit of different colors, in the same scene is an unforgivable sin, and one that indicates other production shortcuts. The Other Boleyn Girl is an arresting story that deserved a much better treatment.

Rated PG-13, 90 mins. (C-)

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