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The Other Boleyn Girl

Two sisters compete for King Henry VIII in this 16th-century costume meleodrama

Would it be fair to say that everyone knows the story of Anne Boleyn? Perhaps not. OK, then: Everyone who wants to know the story of Anne Boleyn knows it, and everyone who doesn't know it doesn't want to.

Anne Boleyn was (of course) the second wife of Henry VIII and the mother of Queen Elizabeth I. Their courtship and marriage was turbulent (as well as tumescent), and you might say it gave birth to the Church of England, which Henry needed to create to get rid of his first wife, a Catholic with an unsightly wart on her lip, and marry Anne (a Catholic, too, but what-ever). It ended with Anne's beheading, the ultimate 16th-century comeuppance for pretty girls with ambitious families.

This is all grist for Masterpiece Theater. And, for those of you -- those of us -- who remember Keith Michell's bellowing portrait of Henry in the six-part TV telling of his six wives, well, let's just say: Henry VIII he is, he is. In The Other Boleyn Girl, the meaty Eric Bana is perfectly fine as Henry, even sensitive to a degree, and no doubt every inch a king. But in the pop-cult history of this royal, he's Brandon Routh to Michell's Christopher Reeve.

Of course, you don't call a movie The Other Boleyn Girl if the king's the thing. In director Justin Chadwick's fast-paced, over-plotted, neo-chick-flick version of British history, Anne (Natalie Portman) is the smarter and wilier sister, while the shy Mary Boleyn (Scarlett Johansson) is the comely junior sib. The king, whose long-time first wife hasn't given him a son, travels to the Boleyn home to consider taking Anne, still single, as his mistress-cum-incubator (in that order). But she missteps, and besides, the newly married Mary pleases him more.

You'd think this would be a moral dilemma for Mr. and Mrs. Boleyn. Think again. Their dad wants position, so he orders his daughter (first Anne, then Mary) to assume a position of her own. Their mother came from a wealthy family and married for love, but she's still sufficiently on board, naively telling the girls that "letting men believe they are in charge is the art of being a woman." (Guess what, honey: They are.) And so on and so on until Henry finally hooks up with Anne and cuts off her head (and her brother's for good measure, on a trumped-up charge of incest with Anne).

Somewhere deep inside the sinewy silk and gorgeous gabardine of The Other Boleyn Girls lurks a frustrated erotic drama, frantically jerking itself off for want of a good lay. It's hard to feel the erotic tension of a movie, let alone hear the moaning, when the billowy soundtrack keeps getting in the way of the few and paltry lovemaking scenes. When I see ancient English royals having a shag, I want to be able to smell their stench (piss pots by the bed, baths with your clothes on). If this movie were any less authentic it would be The Real World: 16th-Century England.

Still, the drama has its pleasures. Watching a family whore out its daughters somehow makes the yin and yang of Victorian sex seem civilized by comparison, even if Chadwick renders it all with virtually no dramatic effect. It's more fun if you know a little British history: Early on, we hear mention of the ambitious Howard family -- Catherine Howard would be Henry's fifth wife, herself a victim of the ax -- and Jane Seymour, Frau No. 3, is always lurking about.

As for the Boleyn girls, I'm afraid to say that Anne is the juicier role, and Portman the juicier performer. Both women have their moments, but Johansson still doesn't understand that being doe-eyed isn't the same thing as looking like a deer trapped in headlights. Portman, on the other hand, is beautifully superficial, running an adept gamut of emotions. She has a degree from Harvard, and I'm sure she cracked her Monarch Notes often during production.

The Other Boleyn Girl
Sisters are doin' it: Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson

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By Mars Johnson