"When you sleep with the king, it ceases to be a private matter." And so it comes to pass that young Mary Boleyn (Scarlett Johansson) must stand before her father, Sir Thomas (Mark Rylance), and her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey), and report the nitty-gritty details of having just had sex with King Henry VIII (Eric Bana). Obsessed with gaining the profitable favor of the king, the duke's original plan was to have Mary's older sister, Anne (Natalie Portman), become Henry's mistress and give him the son — and heir — that his wife, Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent), has not. After Anne overplayed her hand and offended the king, Sir Thomas and the duke threw Mary in his path, and though initially resistant, she quickly melted before Henry's charms, which is understandable since the Henry VIII of The Other Boleyn Girl has better abs than the portly Henry of yore. He also speaks to Mary in literately purple prose that's been put into his mouth by screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen). "Your face is the sun," the king tells Mary by candlelight. "One shouldn't gaze too long."
Alas, in the royal palaces of the sixteenth century, love was as fleeting as it is in today's Hollywood. In a flash, Mary is out of the king's bed and Anne is in. Like its literary source, this sumptuous film adaptation of Philippa Gregory's 2001 novel plays fast and loose with chronology and incident, telling us that Anne Boleyn wanted so badly to be queen that she withheld sex from Henry until he got a divorce from Katherine. Seemingly driven mad with desire, the king demanded that the pope annul his longstanding marriage to Katherine, a request Rome refused, which led Henry to forever break from the Catholic Church. Thus was born the Church of England. (The movies sure beat school.)
Anne Boleyn's grab for power has inspired many a movie and TV series — Showtime's The Tudors will zero in on her in its new season — but the real story is complicated as hell, and so, quite sensibly, Morgan and BBC director Justin Chadwick, making his feature debut, stick tight to, well, the girls — and Portman and Johansson don't let them down. Stuck for years playing young women who are the idealized object of male desire — flaw-free and barely conscious, in Johansson's case — they come alive in The Other Boleyn Girl, as if being bound up in costumer Sandy Powell's exquisite gowns has freed them from the tighter constraints of their own beauty. When Chadwick and ace cinematographer Kieran McGuigan move in tight on Mary and Anne's faces — and that's the abiding action of the movie — the actors portraying them practically tremble with inner life, and who'd have expected that?
Morgan clearly has a gift for writing great roles for women, even small ones — as the sisters' embittered mother, Kristin Scott Thomas gets to deliver one zinger after another — but in this case, he hasn't served King Henry or Eric Bana very well. Here is a king who turned his nation inside out for love, but the filmmakers are so focused on Mary and Anne that they fail to help us understand the depths of Henry's motivations. In their hurried shorthand, we're meant to think that he told the pope to take a hike because one girl wouldn't have sex with him. Perhaps he did, but dramatically, it's awfully thin, particularly in a tale that ends in bloodshed and misery. One feels for Bana, who badly needs kingly things to do — a map to point at, or a traitor to throw up on the rack.
Still, The Other Boleyn Girl is no February toss-off. Chadwick, who directed Masterpiece Theatre's recent triumph, Bleak House, has a natural instinct for framing; he knows how to draw the audience's eye from the left and then to the right side of the screen, and he knows to pull back occasionally and observe his whispering, conspiratorial characters from the other side of the room, like a servant peeking in the doorway to see what's up with the royals. But history can't be denied (though studio heads do try), and the film gets downright grim in the home stretch as Anne's sordid and bloody destiny reveals itself. The filmmakers deserve credit for being serious-minded, but they might have hinted at the top of the film that all would not be well in the end. Movie-goers who don't know Anne's fate in advance are likely to leave the theater feeling glum. History class can be a total bummer.