Conventional wisdom on Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII and mother of Elizabeth I, generally focuses on three points.
That she persuaded Henry to break with the Vatican so he could divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry her. That by withholding her sexual favors she won the crown. And that by not delivering Henry a male heir she lost her head.
Of that other Boleyn girl, Mary, Anne's sister, less is known. Most historians agree that she was Henry's mistress and some say that she was likewise involved with the French monarch Francois I. Lack of available facts makes it easier to reclaim Mary as a heroine who owns her own sexuality and her own heart.
The Other Boleyn Girl, based on the historical fiction by Philippa Gregory, stars Natalie Portman as that minx, Anne, who enchants and entraps Henry (Eric Bana), and Scarlett Johansson as that voluptuary Mary, who simply loves him.
In adapting Gregory's bodice-ripper, screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen), recasts the age-old female archetypes of virgin and whore into post-feminist archetypes of tightly wound schemer and easygoing dreamer.
Not that I'm complaining, exactly. Outside of The First Wives Club and porn movies it's so rare to see plural females on screen that Portman and Johansson may be forgiven for seizing their roles as lapsed vegans might lamb chops.
Both deliver memorable performances. As do Kristin Scott Thomas as the Boleyns' mother, beautiful as she is eloquent, and Ana Torrent, magisterial and magnificent as the discarded Catherine of Aragon.
Still, despite the lushness of the landscapes, the leading ladies and their voluminous, jewel-toned gowns, The Other Boleyn Girl feels less like an epic drama about power and the power of love than an episode of a Masterpiece Theatre mini-series.
Given the zing and zip of Morgan's prior work, it's fair to guess that the film's want of rhythm and sweep is due to Justin Chadwick's pedestrian direction. His shot sequence is this: Face-off, followed by heels clacking down the royal corridor, followed by aggrieved character galloping off astride his/her horse.
In the hands of Chadwick (who has indeed directed episodes of Bleak House for Masterpiece Theatre), The Other Boleyn Girl frequently seems less like historical fiction than hysterical fiction. Scenes are milked not for their emotional texture but confrontational pow, which gets exhausting.
As Morgan frames the story, the Boleyn sisters from youth are a study in contrasts. Dark-haired Anne is complicated and stormy; light-haired Mary simple and sunny.
When they reach maturity, the family plan is to pimp each of them to the noblest family possible. Their mother's brother, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey), is weighing the available dukes and marquesses when it comes to his attention that the king may be in the market for a new consort. (As Henry, Eric Bana is so recessive that he nearly disappears from the screen.)
The stormy/sunny characterization of the Boleyns is carried forward, with the inference that their respective sex lives were much like their dispositions.
The lead actresses have fun with their parts, flint-eyed Portman striking sparks and radiating heat and honey-haired Johansson flowing with sweetness and light. No offense intended to these most resourceful of actresses if I say that their cycle of sisterly supportiveness and betrayal suggests a Tudor Mean Girls.
Is the takeaway message here that she who wields power ends unhappily and she who is pliant has the opposite fate? I haven't read the novel, but something tells me this is not Philippa Gregory's intention.
The Other Boleyn Girl **1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Justin Chadwick. With Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana, Kristin Scott Thomas, Mark Rylance and David Morrissey.
Distributed by Columbia Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 55 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (mature themes, sexual content, sexual violence, violence)
Playing at: area theaters