If MSNBC’s David Shuster is shocked at the Clintons’ “pimping out” of Chelsea on the campaign trail, he should get a load of what Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) does to his daughters in Justin Chadwick’s The Other Boleyn Girl (Sony Pictures). In the name of consolidating their family’s wealth and power, these comely sisters are asked to do a lot more than address college crowds and munch on corn dogs at state fairs. They’re offered up as frank sexual chattel, heir-producing pawns in the court of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana).
Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon (great Spanish actress Ana Torrent), has been unable to bear him a son, and, as one player in the privacy-free zone of the court puts it, “she no longer bleeds.” So Henry—a charming, sexually insatiable egotist—is on the lookout for fertile young flesh that the ambitious Boleyns are only too happy to provide. First the king’s eye is caught by the saucy, quick-witted Anne (Natalie Portman). But before she makes it to his royal bedchamber, he’s distracted by the gentle, already married Mary (Scarlett Johansson). All three are placed in tableaux rather than being called upon to act, but Johansson’s performance stands out—her combination of vulnerability and blankness at times recalls Kim Novak. What follows is an entire miniseries’ worth of betrayals and reconciliations, seductions, births, and miscarriages. While the broad historic outlines of the story are accurate—Mary Boleyn did bear two children generally believed to be Henry’s, Henry did break with the church of Rome to marry Anne, and Anne was eventually beheaded on trumped-up charges of treason and incest—most of the behind-the-scenes intrigue, and all of the sororal psychodrama, is pure feverish speculation.
Based on the best-selling British romance novel by Philippa Gregory, the movie was scripted by Peter Morgan, who wrote The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, and the recent Tony-nominated play Frost/Nixon. For all of its cock-teasing camp (“How do you propose to stay on the horse?” the king asks a sidesaddle-riding Anne; “With my thighs,” she replies), the screenplay demonstrates flashes of a keen political intelligence. It gets something right about the built-in weaknesses of monarchy: As patriarchal as this form of government may be, its survival depends on the reproductive capacity of women (and their crucial but unverifiable fidelity to the king). In its pulpy, soft-focused way, The Other Boleyn Girl is almost feminist, showing how the matter-of-fact royal traffic in women grinds down the sisters and their horrified but powerless mother (Kristin Scott Thomas).
But feminist subtext aside, the movie is primarily an excuse for ogling some blue-chip actor-flesh. Portman’s heart-shaped face, Johansson’s cushiony lips, Bana’s furry sternum are all handsomely framed in high definition. The costume design is so lush and detailed, it may inspire a mass-market trend for Tudor fashion. (I see a real future for Portman’s take on the ghetto nameplate necklace: a gold “B” suspended on a string of pearls.) I just wish that those costumes, however stunning, spent more time crumpled on boudoir floors. For a movie whose story hinges almost entirely on sex, The Other Boleyn Girl is disappointingly demure, with elliptical talk of “improper intimacies” and love scenes that cut away after the first kiss. In order to keep Henry’s attention in bed, Anne confesses to her sister at one point, “I have to resort to ever more degrading …” Ever more degrading what? In an attempt to preserve its PG-13 rating and, presumably, its preteen-girl audience, the movie muffles its own raciest moments. The only sex scene we see enough of is the one we least want to—let’s just say that, despite Portman and Johansson’s recent red-carpet kiss, the incest subplot has nothing to do with hot girl-on-girl action.
At least The Other Boleyn Girl is admirably direct about being what last year’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age tried not to be: a prurient historical potboiler. Where The Golden Age tried in vain to make politics sexy (a flowing-haired queen inspiring her troops for battle on the back of a white horse), this movie recognizes that more often, just the reverse is true. It’s sex that can become political, the machinations of desire that can have repercussions in the affairs of state.