Long gone are the days of yesteryear, when hefty actors like Charles Laughton played King Henry VIII, he of many insatiable appetites. Now our kings must be played by actors with exfoliation and personal training appointments, like Jonathan Rhys Meyers, in the Showtime series The Tudors and Eric Bana, the erstwhile Hulk who plays the king in The Other Boleyn Girl, Justin Chadwick’s film adaptation of the Philippa Gregory best-seller.
A brief primer for those unschooled in monarchical rule: King Henry, unhappily married to a queen (Catherine of Aragon) who cannot bear him a male heir, carries on with not one but two daughters of the aggressive Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance): his virtuous (though married) daughter, Mary (Scarlett Johansson), and her more conniving older sister, Anne (Natalie Portman). Eventually, Anne will push Catherine out of the way and give birth to a daughter named Elizabeth, further enraging the mercurial Henry. Heads will roll.
With much of its story already known, Boleyn must rely on its leading ladies to keep us interested, but neither Johansson nor Portman convince us that they are sisters — or British for that matter — and get mired in Chadwick’s melodrama (Gregory co-adapted with Peter Morgan, of The Queen). Johansson at least demonstrates a good deal of chemistry with Bana, who does what he can with a slim (in every possible sense) role. Portman, however, simply lacks the gravitas needed to play such a tough cookie. Even less sweet is that fact that the most interesting characters in Boleyn are its men, all of whom get short shrift: Thomas; his son, George (Jim Sturgess), who the film alternately posits may be homosexual or incestuous; and the Duke of Norfolk (an outstanding David Morrissey), out for blood. Whatever happened to girl power?