From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman.
‘Boleyn Girl’ takes historical soap opera to higher level of intrigue
“The Other Boleyn Girl” whips historical fact, speculation and pure fiction into a frothy frappe of political intrigue, sexual maneuvering and sibling rivalry.
The big-screen adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s historical novel has just enough class – a top-notch cast, lavish period costumes and beautiful scenery – to balance out the trash, namely the steamy love scenes and verbal cat fighting. But this bodice ripper still is more Nora Roberts novel than Merchant Ivory production.
After a glimpse of their idyllic childhood, the movie introduces the Boleyn sisters: older, cleverer Anne (Natalie Portman) and younger sweetie pie Mary (Scarlett Johansson). Mary is betrothed to marry a merchant (Benedict Cumberbatch) and live a simple life in the country.
But her uncle, the ambitious Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey), brings big news to her wedding. As a royal adviser, he knows that King Henry VIII (Eric Bana) is tired of his older wife, Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent), who has failed to produce a male heir. The king is looking for a young mistress capable of giving him a son.
The sisters’ wimpy father, Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance), puts forth Anne as the ideal candidate, hoping to gain fortune and favor for his family.
But when the king visits Boleyn manor, Mary, not Anne, tickles his fancy. He orders Mary and her family to move to his castle so he can make the newlywed his side dish.
Despite protests from Mary and her wise mother, Lady Elizabeth (Kristin Scott Thomas), Mary’s husband agrees to prostitute his bride for his own shot at prestige.
Mary and Henry embark on a surprisingly passionate love affair, with the king treating her tenderly and trusting her forthrightness. While Mary is falling for the king, the jilted Anne begins an affair with a spoken-for nobleman, which gets her shipped to France as punishment.
Mary gets pregnant with Henry’s baby, but complications put her on bed rest. Worried that fickle Henry will forget the Boleyns while Mary gestates out of sight, the duke brings back Anne.
Anne seduces Henry so skillfully that by the time Mary gives birth to a son, the younger sister has become the other Boleyn girl.
But Anne refuses to sleep with Henry until he makes her queen, pushing him to break with the Catholic Church so he can divorce his wife. But once she wins the crown, Anne’s fortunes turn for the worse, and she seeks help from her sister.
Henry VIII’s revolving-door approach to matrimony deserves a soap opera treatment. Despite occasional stumbles over the British accents, Portman and Johansson give emotional weight to this tale of love, loyalty and women traded like cattle for heirs and wealth.
But the film cuts big corners trying to cram in so much history and speculation. Even for a casual history buff, having Henry’s historic break with Rome reduced to foreplay conversation induces cringes.