If Shakespeare was writing the screenplay for The Other Boleyn Girl, he might have named it Much Ado About Nothing. In truth, a more fitting title would be Much Ado About Something Done Better Dozens of Times Before. The story of how Anne Boleyn seduced Henry VIII into breaking from Rome (and an affair with her sister, Mary) has been the stuff of several cinematic epics. But from the flawed casting choices (two Americans and an Australian play these important British figureheads) to the questionable historical accuracy here, Other is a Harlequin romance with none of the genre’s steam or sizzle.
With his Queen unable to bear him a son, Henry VIII (Eric Bana) seeks solace in the beds of local noblewomen. When the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey) learns of this proclivity, he attempts to exploit it for his family’s benefit. Calling on brother Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) and his wife, Lady Elizabeth (Kristin Scott Thomas), they come up with a devious plan. They will invite the King to their estate, and then parade daughter Anne (Natalie Portman) before him. Of course, his Majesty has his own designs, and after a hunting accident, he takes a fancy to the fairer, more compassionate Boleyn girl Mary (Scarlett Johansson). Immediately becoming his concubine, the entire family is whisked off to court. But Anne will not be vanquished, and will do anything to claim her royal reward.
More bodice tripping that ripping, The Other Boleyn Girl is a dull, tedious slog. It provides none of the passion, none of the political intrigue we’ve come to expect from such veiled period pieces, and reemphasizes a single point — Anne’s jealousy of Mary — more times than is humanly necessary. Though Phillipa Gregory’s novel is well considered, and the script was penned by none other than The Queen and The Last King of Scotland scribe Peter Morgan, something about Justin Chadwick’s pedestrian direction undermines any drama either inherent or manufactured. Clearly captivated by the stars he’s hired, he sets them adrift inside a lot of fake pomp and quite a few unbelievable circumstances. About halfway through, Lady Elizabeth makes a comment about women being treated like chattel. It’s a sentiment that can apply to the actors here as well.
But there is much more that is unsettling about Boleyn besides royalty’s desire for power — and sexual satisfaction — at any cost. There isn’t a single likeable character here. Henry comes across as boorish, petty, and rather heartless. While it may be a matter of record, it gives Bana little to work with. We end up with a King whose acts of interpersonal cruelty rival those committed in his Tower. Similarly, Natalie Portman is incredibly shrill as Anne. She schemes. She connives. She plays right into her uncle and father’s plan, and then balks when the consequences arrive. Her fall from grace is not tragic, it’s trying. Instead of representing the catalyst for Britain’s break with the Catholic Church, she’s like a whiny school girl who got caught out past curfew.
That just leaves Johansson to hold everything together, and she’s just not up to the task. Mary is viewed as a martyr, a girl who sacrifices everything — first husband, reputation, claim to the throne, Henry’s actual love — so that her sibling can climb up the social ladder. With all the love/lust machinations bubbling through the first hour, Chadwick has to rush through the last few sequences to work the actual facts in. It all comes across as superficial and staged. Lovers of Lifetime movies about monarchs might enjoy The Other Boleyn Girl. But there is very little of the Bard, or any other accomplished artist, in this creaky costume drama.
The DVD includes numerous deleted/alternate scenes (though most are slightly different alternate versions of scenes in the final cut), two making-of featurettes, and historical data about the real characters in the story.