In “The Other Boleyn Girl,” Henry VIII becomes history’s ultimate ladykiller like we’ve never seen him before. This figure has inspired numerous provocative interpretations, from Charles Laughton’s classic role to Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ in the recent Showtime series, “The Tudors.” But here, portrayed by Eric Bana, he’s a brooding beefcake who devours women and spits them out if his lust goes sour. Like a pimp, he wields absolute control over his women: he turns Boleyn sister against sister, makes their father careless for both, and almost forces their brother to commit incest with Anne (anything to give the king a son).
But Henry can’t take the role of “master pimp”: this goes to the Boleyn sisters’ uncle, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey). He’s a cardboard-cutout villain that screenwriter Peter Morgan and director Justin Chadwick could have borrowed from any number of low-budget scripts. Norfolk forces his niece, Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman), towards a sexual liaison with Henry, after the king has lost interest in his current wife, the barren-of-male-child Catherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent). This order leaves her father (Mark Rylance) oddly complicit, and turns his wife (Kristen Scott Thomas) into a powerless pseudo-feminist. While pandering to modern audiences, Scott Thomas’ role is really an attempt to save this film from sinking into pure abhorrence for women. Regardless of whether “The Other Boleyn Girl,” based on a novel by Philippa Gregory, tells the “other side of the story,” this film highlights men who brutalize women psychologically and, if need be, physically. Under their control, the female victims bicker over who should become the choice target. Here we have misogyny in service of melodrama.
As for the melodramatic excesses: while Norfolk chooses Anne for the king, Henry opts for her sister, Mary (Scarlett Johansson). He soon trysts with her to create a complicated pregnancy. This leaves her bedridden and forces England’s most beloved manchild to lose interest. All the while Catherine of Aragon grows jealous but ineffectual, while Anne ups her charisma to captivate Henry. Anne’s charisma requires that we suspend disbelief, since Portman’s cutesy take on a seductress plays as if she were a bratty teen who’s out to bed the school jock.
As sisters, Portman and Johansson are as convincing as Schwarzenegger and Devito were as “Twins” in 1988, and the women act out a rivalry of schoolgirlish proportions. While Portman’s mugging camps it up and Johansson employs her usual ponderous stare, Bana relies on a statuesque interpretation of Henry. Like Tom Cruise, Bana is worthless in closeup – it’s as if the muscles around his eyes cannot be awakened into emotion. But this doesn’t matter much here, since this movie goes for lurid sensationalism instead of drama, in spite of some lustrous visuals to dish out the eye candy. Bana broods, then drools at the girlies, then orders the ax. In fact, the falling blade is the only element not missing the mark in this film. I wanted to call for the beheading after Act One, and spare the audience instead.