The Other Boleyn Girl is a fitting prequel to the Elizabeth movies: It's pretty, passionate, and full of historical poppycock. The philosophy of such movies seems to be that if the emotions come across, then the facts don't matter. But Boleyn Girl wants to have its relationship with history both ways: It frequently ditches history in order to flirt with catfights and sex scandals, but periodically slinks back to history in order to borrow a little undeserved gravitas. Unfortunately, the resulting relationship feels clumsy and contrived.
Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson play the Boleyn sisters, Anne and Mary, alternately the helpless, victimized pawns of their ambitious family, and king-defying history-makers, as convenient on a scene-by-scene basis. When Queen Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent) fails to produce a son for King Henry VIII (Eric Bana, looking ready to Hulk out at any moment), the Boleyns' uncle pushes Anne at Henry, hoping he'll take her as a mistress and make the family's fortune. Instead, Henry claims Mary, bribing her husband to pretend nothing is amiss. Feeling overlooked, Anne fumes, rebels, is exiled to France, and eventually returns with heightened man-manipulating powers, which she uses to seduce the king, punish her miserable sister, and turn England on its head. Then her ambition doubles back and punishes her in turn, as the whole film folds into a sordid sexual morality play.
This is history as high-school soap opera, predicated largely on who's getting screwed, who's getting snubbed, and who's being, like, a total bitch to someone who was her BFF just yesterday. While Boleyn Girl isn't as shallow and image-driven as 2006's Marie Antoinette, it's still largely stuck on the overplayed spats between the sisters and their lovers, at the expense of any sense of time, place, or larger significance. If handled more gracefully, the small focus might illustrate how rarely people see beyond their own immediate desires, but The Queen screenwriter Peter Morgan (working from Philippa Gregory's historical romance novel) makes it seem more like the history of the Tudors only existed to spice up a few people's sex lives. The film looks terrific, all Vermeer-style light/dark interplay and sleek design. And Portman is fantastic as the tempestuous Anne, though she does tend to gnaw the sumptuous scenery, and leave the rest of the cast trailing palely in her wake. But the film is more interested in how she emotionally brutalizes Mary—and how Henry sexually brutalizes her—than in any part of the story that can't be summed up with catty one-liners and smeary sobbing.