The Other Boleyn Girl, based on Philippa Gregory's novel about the relationship between Henry VIII (Eric Bana) and Anne (Natalie Portman) and Mary (Scarlett Johansson) Boleyn, gives you everything you've come to expect from a modern historical drama. The costumes are gorgeous; the lighting's suitably muted. The drawing-room scenes are like something out of Rembrandt; the kitchen scenes like something out of Bosch. There are a great number of shots of people striding purposefully out of dark rooms, or of horses racing across the landscape, their speed unimpeded by the gravity of the news their riders bring. Personal squabbles turn into political struggles; moments of passion are contemplated as possible foundations for 100-year dynasties. There are fights and tights, gowns and frowns, tears and blood and sweat.
But, at the same time, The Other Boleyn Girl fails to give you anything other than what you've come to expect from the modern costume drama; it doesn't have that little something extra that could make it truly exceptional. The film lacks the baroque lunacy of Elizabeth, or the moral weight of A Man for All Seasons, the silken sexual gamesmanship of Dangerous Liaisons or the rich metaphors of Girl with a Pearl Earring. The Other Boleyn Girl, to quote another great costume drama, has no spur to prick the sides of its intent; it just sort of goes from happy days at the family estate to grim ones at the chopping block, drifting like a lazy sailboat whose sails are occasionally filled with enough shouting to nudge the plot from one scene to the next.
For those of you not up-to-speed on mid-16th century English politics -- which means everyone, including me -- let's have a brief refresher. Henry (Bana) was on the throne, and considered a just ruler, but his wife Katharine of Aragon (Ana Torrent) seemed unable to provide him with a male heir. The Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey) knows the king's appetites will lead him to trouble, so he acts -- not to defuse that temptation, but, rather, to take advantage of it, placing his niece Anne (Portman) in proximity to the King so she might catch his eye, with the king's affection elevating both her status and the Boleyn family's fading fortunes. And yet, it's Mary (Johansson) who catches the king's desire; she is graceful; she is lovely; she is already married. And she is given no choice.
As various power plays and squabbles play out, the Boleyn sisters orbit the king in long loops defined by royal impulse. Henry craves Mary as a lover but shuns her as the mother of his illegitimate son; Henry casts Anne out for her willfulness but tugs her back with fierce desire. And occasionally, the Boleyns clash and fight as they approach towards or fall away from the center of their world. Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) adapted Phillipa Gregory's novel, but while Morgan's become the cinema's go-to writer for behind-the-scenes looks at the halls of power, the film never attains the mythic, massive quality that would make it more than just well-clad soap opera. At times it feels like the youthful Boleyn sisters -- one blond, simple and decent, the other dark-haired, ambitious and conniving -- are just Tudor-era variations on Betty and Veronica, with Bana's Henry combining Archie's kindness, Reggie's cruelty and Jughead's sloth. Director (and period television veteran) Justin Chadwick may have made the visual jump to the physical scale and scope of film in his feature debut, but his storytelling seems frozen at the pretty-but-pedestrian level of high-gloss TV.
The leads are all just ... capable, and if that seems like damning them with faint praise, faint praise is all that can be bestowed on the thin juice they wring out of Morgan's screenplay. As she did in the superior period piece Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johansson plays her character's journey out in minor keys -- a darting look away, a slow smile, a softening glance. Portman, however, seems out of place -- there's something thoroughly modern about her, and no amount of period garb can dull that edge; spitting out clever witticisms or barking out demands, she seems less like a queen of old and more like Carrie Bradshaw in a bustle and corset. And Bana's Henry spends too much time brooding in dark rooms; he never quite reaches the heights of arrogance or the depths of petulance Henry's historical actions would imply.
As The Other Boleyn Girl points out, Henry was willing to force a split between England and the Catholic Church so that he might divorce Catherine and be with Anne; put more crudely, Anne Boleyn tore a nation apart by keeping her knees together. The scenes where Portman's Anne plays this dangerous game with Bana's unhinged Henry have a certain charge to them; the film might have used more of that energy, and less of Morrissey barking orders out from under an Olivier-style wig, or shots of Johansson gazing off into the distance in golden gauzy light. Costume Designer Sandy Powell (The Aviator, Far From Heaven, Shakespeare in Love) dresses the outsides of the characters in fine style; Morgan and director Justin Chadwick don't do the same for the character's inner lives. At one point, Bana's Henry wears a purple-black-blue jacket with more shading, texture and dimension than, an unkind observer might say, his entire performance.
The plot twists and events in The Other Boleyn Girl will only be surprising if you don't know the actual history involved. I'm ashamed to admit that near the finale, the dim recollection of my studies and the few facts I've gleaned from other films combined their meager forces as one of Henry's daughters is named, and my inner monologue actually mixed Hollywood and history and noted "I think that baby girl grows up to be Cate Blanchett. ..." Mixing Hollywood with history can occasionally result in a great piece of entertainment, full of frocks and shocks and crowns and frowns and bedroom tiffs played out on the global stage, the decisions of the moment shaping humanity's course for decades. With The Other Boleyn Girl, the sheen and shine of the clothing and sets can't quite blind us to the fact there's very little drama under all the drapery, and you'll recall the textures of the fabrics long after you've forgotten the threads of the plot.