‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ movie review: Portman, Johansson in historic love triangle

A dreary and historically dubious costume drama, The Other Boleyn Girl was given a pass by most critics when it opened in the US this spring. I wonder why: the film is about as bad as these things can get, dull and listless, populated by rote one-dimensional characters, content to slog through its sketchy version of history rather than engage us emotionally. 

We should feel something at the end when Anne Boleyn gets her head chopped off (I hope I’m not spoiling this for any readers); but no, the film has done such a wonderful job with her character that we simply don’t care one way or the other.

Natalie Portman stars as Anne Boleyn, with Scarlett Johansson playing her sister Mary. The titular Boleyn girl could be either of them, as the film never sufficiently tells either of their stories. 

Instead, welcome to 16th Century politics and bed-hopping: King Henry VIII (Eric Bana) desperately seeks a male heir to the throne, and wife Katharine is unable to provide one; looking to gain power and influence for himself and his family sleazy Duke of Norfolk sends nieces Anne and Mary into the fire when the King visits the family residence. 

Mary makes such an impression on the King that he invites her to court to become his mistress; this sparks a rivalry between the two sisters that reaches an apex when Anne seduces the King while Mary is in bed carrying his child.

Second half of the film is a hurried and harried run through of the rise and fall of Anne; a sorry comparison to Charles Jarrott’s Anne of the Thousand Days

All the characters here are one-dimensional, but Mary was the only sympathetic one; once the film tosses her aside, it’s an unwatchable mess as Portman’s bitchy Anne and Bana’s sex-crazed King spew their vitriol across the screen. 

Intimate scenes between Bana and Johansson and Portman are uncomfortable to watch, complete with a truly repellent PG-13 rape scene.

The acting is all fine, which is surprising as you might expect these Hollywood names to flounder in this British historical drama; they’re not good enough, however, to overcome a horribly weak script and make us care about these characters. 

Bad writing is less distracting in the supporting roles, and Kristin Scott Thomas and Mark Rylance steal the film whenever they’re on the screen, which is mostly confined to the first half of the movie. They play the Boleyn girl’s parents, who are led by the Duke of Norfolk into prostituting their daughters for political gain.

Production is mostly handsome but occasionally cheap-looking; some overhead shots and vistas reek of CGI.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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