Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman) stands at the scaffold, sentenced to death. Next to her hovers the headsman, his broad sword gleaming. All around, the crowd brays for blood. All of it, that is, except for her gentle sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson), who watches with fear and apprehension. Henry VIII (Eric Bana) has promised Mary that he will spare Anne’s life, but time is running out. Suddenly, there is a rustle at the edge of the throng, and royal couriers hurriedly make their way to Mary, bearing a handwritten message. Is it the king’s pardon?
It’s a real cliffhanger. Or, rather, it would be for anyone who’d never heard the name Anne Boleyn. But given that the word in the English language with which she is most closely associated is “beheading,” it’s a rather peculiar tease, a will-he-or-won’t-he in which we already know he didn’t. There are many such moments in The Other Boleyn Girl, a film that relies heavily on the assumption that its audience will be as indifferent to basic history as it is. It’s a Harlequin Romance version of the English Reformation, a soggy saga of sex and betrayal, girlish schemes and broken hearts.
The story begins with the Boleyn parents marrying off Mary, their younger daughter, to a decent but hardly renowned young swain. Anne, they have decided, is talented enough to reserve for a loftier match. But the potential match that soon arises, though lofty, is hardly conventional: Henry the VIII, King of England, is in the market for a mistress, preferably one who can bear him the son that his wife, Catherine (Ana Torrent), has been unable to. Anne’s father and uncle conspire to make Anne that mistress, but Henry’s eyes instead fall upon Mary, whose recent marriage he sees as little impediment to his affections.
Sweet, innocent Mary is soon in the king’s bed, while ambitious, scheming Anne is banished to France for an unrelated sexual indiscretion. When Mary becomes pregnant, however, Anne is brought back by her family and charged with keeping Henry’s wandering ardors focused on Mary during her confinement. Anne instead redirects them onto herself, flirting shamelessly but refusing to put out until Henry promises to end his relationships with both her sister and the queen. (That she finally succeeds in eliciting this pledge at the exact moment when Mary bears him the son for which he’s long prayed is one of the film’s more comical contrivances.) Henry, of course, breaks with Rome, annuls his marriage, and takes Anne as his new queen. And we all know how well that turns out.
Adapted from Philippa Gregory’s novel by director Justin Chadwick and screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland, The Queen), The Other Boleyn Girl takes vanishingly little interest in the broader history unfolding around its love triangle. It gives not a hint of Anne’s religiosity or crucial role in the Reformation. Sir Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey don’t make appearances in the film, and while Thomas Cromwell was listed in the credits, I don’t recall his presence either. Henry’s decision to abandon the Catholic Church is given approximately 90 seconds of screen time, and the closest the film comes to making a case for or against it is Anne’s purposeful vow, “Somehow I need to make him understand that this”--i.e., the contents of her petticoats--“will be worth it.”
All of which is fine. Not every film needs to be A Man for All Seasons, and in most cases it’s probably wiser not to try. The Other Boleyn Girl might, for instance, have gone the route of Showtime’s “The Tudors,” upping the ante on the sex and subterfuges and taking delight in its own perversity. But, despite an occasional feint in this direction, the film never really does this either. For a film about lust, it’s oddly chaste: Neither Mary’s couplings with Henry (gauzy, soft-focus affairs conducted to murmuring strings) nor Anne’s (a quasi-rape) could properly be called “sexy.” And the film’s tidy moralism might have been borrowed from an after school special in which the Good Girl and the Bad Girl vie for the love of a Popular Boy--only with more miscarriages.
Portman and Johansson are both entirely solid, though neither is exactly in her element, with Portman struggling a bit to project the carnal allure of a femme fatale and Johansson given little to do beyond meekly accepting the punishments doled out by an unkind world. (Reversing the casting, while obvious, might have resulted in a more persuasive dichotomy.) Bana struts and lusts convincingly enough, and the supporting cast--which features the sorely undervalued Kristin Scott Thomas as Lady Boleyn--is generally strong. (One exception is Jim Sturgess who, as third Boleyn sibling George, sports a slacker demeanor and cultivated stubble that seem distinctly 21st century.) The sets and costumes are all appropriately lavish. But, in the end, it’s not enough. Despite the fine brocade and glittering gems, the digitized castles and galloping horses, this is strictly Daytime Emmy fare, the kind of broad and swooning melodrama that a viewer half expects to be interrupted by toothpaste ads.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.