Based upon Philippa Gregory's semi-controversial novel, "The Other Boleyn Girl" is considerably more successful than BBC's 2003 take on the same book in recounting the story of Mary Boleyn.
Mary (Scarlett Johansson) is the younger sister of Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman), who nearly anyone with a sense of history could tell you managed to unseat Katherine of Aragon and become the Queen of England alongside King Henry VIII (Eric Bana).
Those same history buffs, however, are likely to be appalled with the liberties taken by director Justin Chadwick (Masterpiece Theatre's "Bleak House") and screenwriter Peter Morgan ("The Queen"). Of course, it must be noted that the same was said for Gregory's book itself, a 600-page entertaining page-turner that wasn't exactly concerned with historical accuracy.
In a role that has humbled actresses on stage and screen, Natalie Portman offers a masterfully controlled turn combining vulnerability and determination as the sort of woman we might now call upwardly mobile. The person of Anne Boleyn is one of history's most polarizing, and Portman beautifully captures a woman who garners both pity and hatred as her singleminded ambition ultimately betrays her.
As her younger sister, Scarlett Johansson lacks Portman's control as an actress and yet offers Mary a sort of wide-eyed innocence that suits her nicely and contrasts well with Portman. It is most important to recall that during this time in history, women were very much secondary citizens to men and it is rather startling to watch the differences, both subtle and glaring, between Mary and Anne as they are brought to life onscreen. Kristen Scott Thomas, as well, brings this difference to life vividly as the mother of these two young ladies as she must essentially stand by and watch their fates unfold.
As Henry VIII, Bana isn't called upon to do much beyond the basic spoiled and powerful king routine.
"The Other Boleyn Girl" is largely carried by Portman's stellar performance and the magnificent production design of John-Paul Kelly, who captures both the glory and the binding qualities of life for the Boleyn girls.
On the other hand, Morgan's script is surprisingly disappointing as it relies more on surface and clumsy exposition rather than anything resembling solid character and story development. Either "The Other Boleyn Girl" was severely edited or Morgan has suffered a significant letdown after the far superior screenplays for "The Queen" and "The Last King of Scotland."
While "The Other Boleyn Girl" will likely make history buffs cringe, fans of period dramas and, most certainly, Natalie Portman fans will delight in this enchantingly designed and well-acted portrait of one of history's most intriguing royal personalities.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic