Think of it as Dynasty in fancy dress.
A period that encompasses some of the most important events in English history is reduced to a royal soap opera in The Other Boleyn Girl, a film based on the novel by Philippa Gregory.
Novel is the operative word here. A whole lot of 16th-century history is blithely ignored, truncated, or simply changed to suit the needs of the story.
Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson portray Anne and Mary Boleyn, the daughters of Thomas Boleyn, an ambitious but minor courtier who married well: His wife is the sister of the Duke of Norfolk, one of the advisers of Henry VIII, king of England.
When Katharine of Aragon fails to produce a male heir for Henry, a wedge is driven into the marriage, and the king begins looking elsewhere for romance.
Why not his niece, Anne? Norfolk reasons. Thomas knows that his route to riches lies through his daughters; he has already married the younger girl, Mary, to a wealthier man. Thomas' wife is against the scheme. The king is already married, so any dalliance with him would mean scandal to the family.
The plans of Norfolk and Thomas go awry when Henry's eye falls on Mary. She's married? No problem. He's the king.
The entire family is relocated to court; Mary's husband becomes a member of the king's privy council (personal advisers); and Mary is summoned to the royal bedchambers.
So begins the battle of the sisters for the heart of the king.
For those who aren't historians, the real problem of the film is director Justin Chadwick's indecision.
Just when you think The Other Boleyn Girl is going to turn into a knock-down, drag-out mud-pit wrestling match, the movie turns all soul-searching and angst-ridden.
By then it's too late. If you've made the choice to play fast and loose with history, you may as well embrace being a cinematic bodice-ripper.
Sitting on the fence doesn't serve anyone well.
There are two big assets to the film. One is Kristin Scott Thomas as Elizabeth Boleyn, the girls' mother, who fights her husband's plans but is pragmatic enough to try to make things work when decisions go against her wishes. Unfortunately, the film isn't about her, and she's not around much. When she is, the screen crackles.
The second asset is the sumptuous look of the film. It's all green trees, golden meadows, silks, satins, and lace, with nary a smudge of dirt on anyone except the peasants. As long as you're going to have a fairy tale, you may as well make it pretty.
As for Portman and Johansson, they're certainly sexy enough to attract male attention, but neither seemed to throw her heart into her role.
Johansson was the better actress, or at least she had the meatier role, but her lips are becoming a distraction. They're so "plumped" that they threaten to take over her entire face.
Portman, perhaps best known for being Luke Skywalker's mother in the Star Wars films, seems out of her element. Her big moment of high emotion (she's trying to persuade her brother to commit incest) comes off as laughable.
Eric Bana glowers his way through the film as Henry, but he's not hard to look at either.
And, for Americans at least, there's another problem with The Other Boleyn Girl. It's the same one that afflicts Cate Blanchett's Elizabeth and others in the genre.
Who are these people, anyway, and why should we care about them?
OK, most of us know something about Henry VIII and his six wives and Queen Elizabeth I and why she was important, but the roles of the various noblemen, such as the Duke of Norfolk or the Earl of Leicester, and cardinals and politicians have little meaning to American viewers. It's like asking an Englishman to explain the importance of Henry Clay or William Jennings Bryan.
If The Other Boleyn Girl had stayed a melodrama, it could have been fun. If it had been more interested in history and explaining who the characters are, it could have been enlightening.
But because it did neither, audiences are left with pretty people, attractive vistas, sumptuous garments, and some pretty laughable dialogue.
What a waste.
Contact Nanciann Cherry at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Other Boleyn Girl
Directed by Justin Chadwick; screenplay by Peter Morgan, based on the novel by Philippa Gregory. A Columbia Pictures release, it opens today at Cinemas De Lux Franklin Park and Maumee (check!!!) and is rated Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content, and some violent images. Running time: 114 minutes.
Mary Boleyn . Scarlett Johansson
Anne Boleyn . Natalie Portman
King Henry VIII . Eric Bana
Lady Elizabeth Kristin Scott Thomas
George Boleyn Jim Sturgess