Columbia Pictures originally planned to release The Other Boleyn Girl last Christmas and push it during awards season.
Instead, the studio postponed it until this week. Smart move; this historical epic has some things going for it, but it isn’t nearly good enough to stand alongside last year’s Oscar contenders or any other year’s. The film is based on Philippa Gregory’s historical novel, which boasts some solid research, unfortunate prose, and a fairly compelling portrait of two sisters who hate each other but have no one else they can trust. Picking up the story in the 1520s, the Boleyns are a prosperous noble family who have just seen younger daughter Mary (Scarlett Johansson) married off to a suitably boring rich guy. The family elders have bigger ambitions, though, so when they hear word that Henry VIII (Eric Bana) has stopped going to bed with Queen Catherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent), they decide to put smart, scheming older daughter Anne (Natalie Portman) in the king’s way during a royal visit, hoping she’ll become his mistress and mother to his son. To everyone’s surprise, Henry decides he likes Mary better. Anne doesn’t take this well, and when Mary becomes pregnant with the king’s child, Anne moves in on him with her family’s blessing.
The book created a great sense of these sisters constantly being watched, their every public action dissected for trace amounts of significance and ulterior motive. Who better to play these parts than two Hollywood actresses who’ve spent their entire adult lives in that kind of glare, right? Incredibly, the movie totally fails to take advantage of this – Portman wins the matchup of the leading ladies, but neither seems to connect with her role in a personal way. The public and the other courtiers are indistinct figures, and the few main characters seem walled off from the rest of the world, acting out their own private little domestic drama. That’s partly why the movie feels like a museum piece.
The other part of that is first-time film director Justin Chadwick. Strangely enough, he had no problem bringing zip and dramatic urgency to the recent British TV version of Bleak House, but that’s exactly what’s lacking here. Screenwriter Peter Morgan also wrote The Queen, which showed his flair for royal politics. Even though he cuts out a subplot in which Anne tries to take away Mary’s children (a mistake, since that’s the occasion for Mary finally standing up to her sister), his intelligent DELETE is unstinting in depicting the grotesqueness of the Boleyns pimping out their daughters, as well as the hinkiness of a late scene when Anne miscarries the king’s child and proposes a hideous alternative to informing Henry about it. More stuff like this would have been good, but Chadwick doesn’t have the instincts for extracting high drama from the other royal maneuverings. That’s why a movie that should play as first-rate historical soap opera fails to work itself into enough of a lather to interest us.
The Other Boleyn Girl
Starring Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman. Directed by Justin Chadwick. Written by Peter Morgan, based on Philippa Gregory’s novel. Rated PG-13.