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'The Other Boleyn Girl': Soapy Costume Drama

Set your bosoms to heave and prepare to have your bodices ripped: The Other Boleyn Girl is in the house with a couple of 16th century foxes. Secret weddings by moonlight! Palace intrigue! Illegitimate children!

Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson play the sisters Anne and Mary as a couple of scheming skanks fighting for the right to bed down with King Henry VIII — played by the perpetually miscast Eric Bana, who in every film he’s made since Chopper (Troy, Munich, etc.) has played supposed tough guys so weak they can barely hurl a sword through someone’s heart or issue a simple death sentence without seeming to be on the verge of sobbing.

The Other Boleyn Girl, which panders shamelessly to its target audience of upscale women by recasting history as a lipstick jungle, is about as convincing as Hillary Clinton was that time she claimed she loved to play pickup basketball.

But the film is atmospheric enough, and fans of soapy costume drama will find it easy to settle into the machinations of the ambitious Boleyn family and the king they try to outmaneuver. The bourgeois patriarch, Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) is a decent man, but one with a lot of debts to consider and a hankering to join the aristocracy.

He plays his two young beauties as chess pieces, marrying off the younger one, Mary (Johansson) at the earliest opportunity but saving the sharper-witted older one Anne (Portman) for better things. When he hears the king is having marital problems with his Queen, Catherine of Aragon, Thomas and his ruthlessly conniving brother-in-law (David Morrissey) entice the king to come visit and parade young Anne in front of him like live bait. Nobody dreams that the king will ever marry Anne since he’s already got a wife. But simply serving as his mistress for a while stands to promote her, and her family.

Like most costumers, this film tells much more about mores in the year it was made than in the year it is set. The central role of religion in the drama is dispensed with in a scene or two, because today’s audiences are secular and uninterested in a world much different than their own. Portman’s Anne is not only a better rider of horses than the king, she flirts in a way that would make the girls on Sex and the City blush. When the king asks her how she intends to stay on her horse, she coquettishly says, “With my thighs.” That remark would have seemed sluttish 50 years ago, much less 500.

In the words of Anne’s mother (Kristin Scott-Thomas), who is troubled by her husband’s eagerness to use her daughters as high-class hookers and goes around serving as the expert political analyst among the men, women secretly control everything, but one of their powers is the ability to convince men that they’re in charge.

Nice try. A 16th century woman was lucky if she could order a bowl of soup, but in this movie Anne drags the king around by his tongue. She struts into his palace and roasts him in front of dozens of noblemen, then plays cards and grabs her chest while pretending to adjust the cross she wears. She rejects Henry’s gifts, making him come to her door and stand mewling outside it like a hungry kitten. Later she suggests Henry break with the Pope and found the Church of England as though telling him she doesn’t like the curtains. If Anne Boleyn was so unique, such a force of nature, why did Henry burn through four more wives after her? There is a lot we don’t know about the 16th century, but kings don’t beg.

The Other Boleyn Girl

Directed by Justin Chadwick

Starring: Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana

2 stars/ 4

115 minutes/Rated PG-13

Kyle Smith is a film critic for the the New York Post. His website is at www.kylesmithonline.com