If the late Aaron Spelling had lived long enough to produce Showtime’s “The Tudors,” the result might have been something like “The Other Boleyn Girl,” which takes the dawn of the English Reformation and turns it into “Dynasty” with headpieces and heaving bodices. With brunette schemer Natalie Portman standing in for Joan Collins and fair-haired naïf Scarlett Johansson in the Linda Evans role, the film lacks only a catfight in a lily pond to make the comparison complete.
When Catherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent) once again fails to produce a male heir for King Henry VIII (Eric Bana), the scheming Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey) sees an opportunity to parade a beautiful young relative in front of the monarch. Whoever becomes the king’s new mistress would bestow wealth and power upon her family, so the duke visits his brother-in-law Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) at the wedding of his daughter Mary (Johansson). The men decide that Thomas’ elder daughter Anne (Portman) would be perfect, and Anne agrees once her uncle reassures her that, at the end of the affair, they’ll be able to marry her off to a nobleman.
The king visits, and Anne begins her campaign of flirting — as they set off for the hunt, the king asks how she can stay on her horse without a man there to help, and she replies, so help me, “With my thighs, your majesty.” But the king gets injured and winds up falling for Mary instead — which sets off a long-running cycle of resentment and jealousy between the sisters — and he summons the entire Boleyn family to court. Once installed in the palace, Mary becomes the king’s mistress and soon finds herself pregnant. Her delicate condition eventually leads to forced bed-rest, and the duke worries that the king’s attentions will soon begin to wander.
Enter Anne, who had been exiled to France after attempting to elope with a nobleman promised to another woman. She is summoned to dazzle and seduce the king, and she does so, brilliantly. Anne drives him to the brink of insanity, however, by refusing to sleep with him until she becomes Mrs. Henry VIII, leading to the king’s abandonment of Mary and their child and to his schism with the Catholic Church so that he can divorce Catherine. Perhaps the alternate title of the film was “How Henry VIII’s Genitals Shaped History.”
Speaking of history, “The Other Boleyn Girl” plays fast and loose with the real story of the Boleyns, but that’s really no surprise. What is shocking is how much this film thinks with its pelvis (in a PG-13 way, of course). The script by Peter Morgan (“The Queen”) is so obsessed with sexual machinations that it often resembles a scrubbed-down version of one of those late-night Cinemax movies, only with way better production values. (Sandy Powell’s sumptuous costumes are the kind that give Oscar voters shivers of delight.)
For a movie this focused on the historical humpty-hump, at least “The Other Boleyn Girl” provides us with three leads that are not only talented but also exquisitely photogenic. Bana is sex on a crumpet — when did movie Henry VIIIs stop looking like Charles Laughton? — and both Portman and Johansson are filmed to maximum effect, even with their cleavage disappearing inside those 16th century dresses (and those headpieces that make women look like playing cards).
“The Other Boleyn Girl” teeters hilariously between feminine empowerment and high camp, but it definitely won’t bore you.