The story of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and England’s break with the Catholic Church has been the subject of countless books and films.
“The Other Boleyn Girl,” based on the novel by Phillipa Gregory, attempts to breathe new life into this old story by shifting the perspective from the feisty and famous Anne to Mary, her younger, lesser- known sister.
Though the film succeeds in providing a diverting two hours of entertainment, it misses the opportunity to truly do something new with this iconic story by focusing on Anne just as much as it focuses on Mary.
The story begins just after Henry’s wife, Katherine of Aragon, has miscarried yet another child. Henry (Eric Bana), starts to get antsy and makes it known the he is on the lookout for a mistress.
While staying at the Boleyn household Henry takes a liking to Mary (Scarlett Johansson), the more demure of the Boleyn sisters.
This obviously does not sit well with Anne (Natalie Portman), who can scarcely contain her jealousy at Mary’s preferential treatment by the king.
The rest of the film focuses on how Anne and Mary vie for Henry’s attention, effectively sundering the bonds of sisterhood in the process.
Anyone with even passing knowledge of Tudor England will know how the story turns out, but the point of “The Other Boleyn Girl” is not what ended up happening, but how and why.
By far the best part of the film is the performances by Johansson and Portman, two of the most talented (and, let’s face it, most attractive) young actresses working today.
Johansson acquits herself wonderfully in the role of Mary, downplaying her sexpot looks to create a character that is reserved and timid. Mary may not always say what is on her mind, but thanks to Johansson the audience is able to empathize with and understand the younger Boleyn.
And Portman goes for the gusto as Anne, playing her as a smart and salacious woman who knows the score and is not afraid to stand up to powerful men like Henry.
Portman’s most compelling scenes, though, come toward the end of the film where her desire to please Henry and provide him with a male heir consume her to the point of madness.
The film’s ultimate flaw is in giving equal screen-time to both Anne and Mary’s stories. The film is called “The Other Boleyn Girl,” after all, yet halfway through the film Mary sort of disappears, and Anne takes center-stage.
This, along with an occasionally hectic pacing that glosses over important and intricate historical events — like Henry’s break with Catholicism — prevents “The Other Boleyn Girl” from becoming a more inventive and compelling entertainment.
Staff writer Jeff Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.