Gay appeal abounds in this bitchy, backstabbing, trashy historical tale
Given a choice between learning history from movies or American public schools, you’ll usually do better at the movies. "The Other Boleyn Girl" is an exception. It’s as handsomely mounted as its stars, Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson, are by King Henry VIII (Eric Bana), but it’s history as told by Jane Austen’s trashy sister.
Surprisingly, though based on a novel by Philippa Gregory, it was written by Peter Morgan, who did much better with "The Queen." History tells us Anne Boleyn (Portman) was the second wife of the much-married monarch the Elizabeth Taylor of his day after he split from the Catholic church and founded the Church of England so he could annul his own marriage to Catherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent).
What we learn here, with some basis in fact but the standard disclaimer at the end about resemblances to real people and events being coincidental, is that Henry preferred Mary (Johansson), Anne’s younger, simpler, prettier sister, who was incidentally also married but became his mistress and bore him a son.
The Austenesque opening scene establishes that Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) is eager to pimp his daughters to improve the family’s social standing, despite the disdain of his wealthier wife, Lady Elizabeth (Kristin Scott Thomas). They marry Mary off to William Carey (Benedict Cumberbatch), saving Anne for something better.
That appears to come along when Elizabeth’s brother, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey), an insider at the Tudor court, arranges to have Henry visit the Boleyns to do some hunting. Catherine has entered menopause without giving the king a male heir, and the duke knows he’ll need a "diversion." If Anne can become his mistress she’ll be able to marry better than she would otherwise.
Meeting both sisters, Henry chooses Mary, leaving Anne free to pursue Henry Percy (Oliver Coleman), "the son of the largest landowner in England."
She doesn’t care that he’s "precontracted" to marry a woman of higher station. But others care, and Anne’s shipped off to France.
The Boleyns also have a son, George (Jim Sturgess, Jude in "Across the Universe"), who may well be the "other Boleyn girl" of the title. Nonetheless they force him to marry Jane Parker (Juno Temple), a woman he detests.
Speaking of gay, this movie has a very gay-appearing supporting cast, as if director Justin Chadwick (Masterpiece Theatre’s "Bleak House") forgot to tell the boys to butch it up. That extends to the king himself. Bana, now more hunk than "Hulk," is certainly not your grandfather’s Henry VIII although Charles Laughton really was gay.
Mary becomes the king’s mistress, ensuring her husband’s advancement at court, and becomes pregnant with the royal bastard. The Duke and Sir Thomas conspire to bring Anne back from France to keep the king occupied while her sister is "lying in," thus keeping other families from successfully pimping their daughters.
But a few months of exile in France have turned Anne, who blames Mary for her problems, into a conniving bitch. She manipulates Henry by denying him sex. By the time Mary gives birth, Anne has the king wrapped around her finger. And this time, it’s Mary who’s sent away. But when Henry marries Anne and she too fails to produce a male heir, she of the thousand days has to give him head instead: her head.
The stars convincingly portray the gamut from sisterly love to sibling rivalry, with Portman handling the heavy histrionics while Johansson is more subtle in her childlike devotion. Scott Thomas’ glare is enough to melt celluloid, which could interrupt some showings.
Strictly for fans of romance novels, "The Other Boleyn Girl" is trash that only occasionally slips into camp but can never be taken completely seriously.
The Other Boleyn Girl
Director: Justin Chadwick
Cast: Natalie Portman, Eric Bana, Scarlett Johansson and Kristin Scott Thomas
Opens Feb. 29 in wide release.
1 hr. 55 min. PG-13
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 29, 2008.