Everyone has at least a vague idea of King Henry VIII. He married a bunch of women, separated from the Pope so he could divorce them when they failed to provide him with a male heir, and sometimes beheaded them for good measure -- all between stuffing his over-plump face with greasy chicken legs. In the corset-laden romantic drama, The Other Boleyn Girl, we get the story from the Boleyn family perspective -- specifically that of its two daughters, Anne (who became his wife) and Mary (who was his mistress).
In fact, the title 'The Other Boleyn Girl' cleverly refers in its way to both daughters -- first Anne (Natalie Portman) uses it to describe herself as she is being outshone by her younger sister, Mary (Scarlett Johansson), when she marries first to wealthy courtier William Carey (Benedict Cumberbatch), and later to Mary as her affair with Henry Tudor is virtually lost to history after Anne successfully manipulated her way into becoming Queen of England, and in so doing, prompting Henry's creation of The Church of England that changed the face of English politics forever.
As historical fiction, The Other Boleyn Girl has the ability to be more interesting than if it were shackled by the constraints of reality. Indeed, the script, which was adapted by historical fiction expert Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland) from Philippa Gregory's novel, is just one imagining of what might have happened during this court. Unfortunately, something about the story just doesn't work -- it waxes melodramatic at times (there were surely unintended laughs in the theater during more than one tense scene) and feels entirely too long. Given Morgan's expertise in the arena, I would have expected better. At places, both the dialogue and the acting feels inappropriately modern, although as much as it pains me to say it, that can perhaps be best blamed on Portman (Star Wars, Closer), who -- although she did grow into the part eventually -- often seemed either hopelessly like a modern girl in medieval clothing, or couldn't help but evoke shades of Padmé.
Johansson, on the other hand, who has recently been woefully miscast in comedies such as The Nanny Diaries, is finally, firmly back in her costume/period/drama wheelhouse, perfectly nailing the part of Mary Boleyn. The soulful, strong, and silent Bana (Munich, Lucky You) was also great casting for the younger, rakish Henry VIII -- and he does a lot with a part that is pretty short on dialogue and mostly involves him storming around and looking angry.
In fact, it was the portrayal of the character of Henry Tudor himself that struck me most about The Other Boleyn Girl, and not the relationship between the sisters as was obviously intended. Basically, The Other Boleyn Girl portrays Henry as not only a man completely governed by his appetites, but one so dumb as to not be aware of it and therefore easily manipulated by the greedy court families who use the situation to their advantage by tempting him with their daughters. Not being a historical scholar myself, I can't comment on how true this was. I mean, we all know that Henry changed wives more often than he changed his underwear and -- judging by his waistline -- not one to hold back from pleasures. But I'd like to at least think that these were decisions made more out of greed and ego than to think he was so dumb as to fail to see his courtiers were essentially luring him about by his gonads.
I will say that despite being primarily a TV director, Justin Chadwick manages to shoot an aesthetically beautiful and tone-appropriate movie -- from the jewel-toned costumes to sweeping shots of the British countryside. But regardless of how pretty it is to look at, I don't think the overall effect of The Other Boleyn Girl was quite what I think the filmmakers hoped. To me, it was ultimately a run-of-the-mill costume drama that made me think more about running home and Wikipedia-ing the characters than investing in the story before me. I'd say, save it for a rental.