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Corset dramas are usually the stuff of gooey, doe-eyed romances against the odds or in the midst of war. The Other Boleyn Girl tries something a little different with the pretty dresses genre and gives us a costumed political procedural in which a women are traded like baby-birthing poker chips and a king is only as good as his libido.
It’s the story of the women in the court of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana), notorious wife exchanger and all around alpha male. Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson play sisters, thrust into a game of palace intrigue when their father decides to dangle their pretty breasts in front of the king in an attempt to lure him away from his battle axe first wife and thus gain favor and prestige for his family, the Boleyns, at court. The problem for the king is that the queen has failed to give him a male heir. He takes this somewhat personally and so their relationship has deteriorated, leaving an opening for some other woman to worm her way into Henry VIII’s bed.
First it’s the youngest Boleyn daughter Mary who scores with the king. Her recent marriage to someone else proves no problem, the king gets what the king wants. What doe-eyed, somewhat dim Mary wants though, is a quiet home in the country. Meanwhile, her sister Anne is every bit as ambitious as Mary is unwilling, and she resents Mary’s unintentional success at banging the King, since she had her eye on his palatial power first. It’s Anne that really ends up being the center of the story, and the script cast her as something of an unsympathetic villain. Of the two sisters she has all the brains and fire, but none of the compassion or plain old common sense. Natalie’s solid as Anne, though the movie doesn’t give her a lot to work with. She’s almost terminally unlikable, a real bitch in a movie full of assholes.
It’s hard to find anyone to root for or care about here. Mary’s the only character who isn’t a complete slime, but Scarlett Johansson’s blank, dead-eyed performance just doesn’t cut it in the middle of all this political and marital backstabbing. Her character’s a dull, dead end and she’s not worth investing in. Eric Bana’s performance is mildly interesting. He manages to be uber-manly even in the fuzzy hats and ridiculously feminine outfits of the era. But other than growling his way through the movie like a bull mastiff, there’s not much to recommend Henry. Like everyone else, he’s just another palace scum. Maybe he’s the top scumbag, but he’s defined by his overreaching, out of control sex drive and little else.
Ultimately it’s a clumsy film with performances ranging all over the place and a story that while well constructed, just isn’t that compelling. It’s a blithely mediocre. The dresses are pretty and colorful, the palace intrigue is well constructed, and it’s nice to see one of these corset dramas try something besides unrequited love as a topic. If that’s enough for you, then maybe you’ll enjoy The Other Boleyn Girl, but with this cast I expected better and the movie should have been able to deliver something more epic. It’s trapped between being a tense political procedural and a sensual sex drama and in the end it doesn’t have the guts to be either.