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The court intrigue of 'The Other Boleyn Girl' fails to court intrigue

Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson play siblings pitted against each other in a bid for the affections of King Henry VIII. It doesn't end happily.

By Peter rainerFilm critic of The Christian Science Monitor / February 29, 2008

Overshadowed: Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman, l.) competes with her sister, Mary (Scarlett Johansson, r.), for the affections of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana) in 'The Other Boleyn Girl.'

Courtesy of Alex Bailey/Columbia Pictures

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If you are one of those people who thinks "they don't make movies like they used to," "The Other Boleyn Girl" should put your gripes on hold. A richly appointed period piece, it features kingly tantrums, mistresses, bodices, roaring fireplaces, incest, and mutton. It also features sharply enunciated, period-perfect dialogue in which nary a contraction can be heard.

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All of which is entertaining even if the antiquity on view is somewhat forced and the performances labored. In truth, they don't make movies like they used to, but "The Other Boleyn Girl" is a reasonable facsimile.

Based on the bestseller by Philippa Gregory and directed by Justin Chadwick from a screenplay by Peter ("The Queen") Morgan, this is a movie that relishes court intrigue. The focus is on two sisters, Anne (Natalie Portman) and Mary (Scarlett Johansson), who are manipulated into the good graces – and the bed – of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana).

Chief manipulators are their country squire father Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) and their scheming uncle, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey), but Anne, at least, doesn't need lessons in intrigue from anyone. She's a vixen and a vamp and no doubt would be equally at home in a Raymond Chandler noir as in a Tudor palace.

There's been lots written about Anne but not much is in the historical record about Mary, and so the film is, in a sense, a fantasy about what she might have been like.

Morgan, taking his cue from Gregory, presents Mary as a simple, good-hearted country girl who, summoned to the king's court along with her family for the express purpose of becoming his mistress, falls in love with the guy. She produces a male heir but oops – she's not the Queen of England, so the baby is illegitimate.

Not wishing to make the same mistake, Anne works her wiles on the bearded potentate, pushing him to renounce his Queen and anoint her instead. Mary is saddened by her sister's plan. "Why this cruelty? You know I love him," she protests, but meekly.

Everything about Mary is meek. What's missing from this characterization is any notion that her maidenly wholesomeness might be a ploy to get what she wants. Johansson is lovely in the role, but there's something inert about the way the role is conceived – she's all too obviously the yin to Anne's yang.

And Portman overdoes the villainess routine. I realize we're supposed to think King Henry is blinded by love, or lust, but really now – the most powerful man in the world can't figure out he's being played by a two-bit temptress? (On second thought, I guess history offers ample precedent for this sort of thing. Never mind.)

The subtext to "The Other Boleyn Girl" is that the women of this era, high and low, were chattel. The sisters are essentially pimped by their elders, with only their grim-faced mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) to protest – meekly.

In such a world, Anne's machinations at least offer up a kind of poetic justice. The movie seems to be saying: What's a girl to do? Answer: Anything.

And so Anne becomes a kind of heroine – she's the best of the worst. Mary, meantime, is a generic female icon, a nurturer who prefers the simple life and stands by her sister even when she's been wronged by her.

Blood ties are big in "The Other Boleyn Girl." So is blood. In this king's court, adultery is a very large no-no. Lose your head and you lose your head.

Morgan's dialogue and the lush high-definition visuals based on the paintings of Hans Holbein lead one to believe that "The Other Boleyn Girl" will be classier than, in fact, it is. It's more like a lushly produced catfight. This has its pleasures, to be sure, but for it to really take off, you'd need cats with sharper claws than these actresses possess. Grade: B

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content, and some violent images.

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