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Columbia Pictures

Sister act

Movies | Boleyn casts its starlets against type, with limited success

Issue: "Our long war," March 8, 2008

Helmed by two of Hollywood's most popular starlets, it can't be a surprise that The Other Boleyn Girl (rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content, and some violent images) puts sexual intrigue above historical accuracy.

Based on the Phillipa Gregory novel of the same name, the story follows the often-fictional tale of Anne Boleyn and her sister Mary. As the two sisters, played by Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson, jockey for the attention of Eric Bana's Henry VIII, they shift in and out of each other's shadow as the "other" Boleyn girl.

Though Mary first catches the king's eye (and reportedly carries his children), it is Anne who wins the crown and gives birth to the future queen. And yet Mary's failures in affairs of the heart prove to be her salvation-she is the only Boleyn child to avoid a public beheading.

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The film's modern approach to this love triangle proves jolting when facts force the story toward excommunication, incest, and public executions, but it delivers on the bodice-ripping promises of its poster.

In the shifting ground of this political and sexual drama, it is impossible to avoid a comparison of the two starlets. Cast against type, Portman plays Anne with conniving intellect while Johannson tries her hand at a shy, naïve femme. While Portman's inherent trustworthiness often undermines her character's cold opportunism, she imbues Anne with a strong-willed feminism. Johannson has less success with her beautiful naïf. She plays Mary as a witless ingénue whose late-blooming loyalty is meant to help her overcome the indignities she suffers.

The book may play fast and loose with historic details, but it managed to entice and entertain with forever shifting allegiances and power dynamics. Here, Johannson's Mary rolls over midway through the film, leaving Anne to be her own undoing. Portman is up to the challenge, but it's a shame, because it leaves much of the pathos unexplored. Mary may have supposedly lost the love of her life, but she was at least smart enough to escape with her head.

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