The Other Boleyn Girl (12A)

O sister, where art thou?
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History is bunk, said Henry Ford. Actually, more like bunk-up, if this reimagining of the ill-starred marriage between Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII is to be credited. Upstairs, downstairs, in my lady's chamber... The Other Boleyn Girl turns the royal bed into the ultimate crucible of power. If a girl can manoeuvre her way between those sheets, there's no telling what can be achieved. Usurp the first wife? Not a problem. Persuade the king to abandon Rome and start his own Church of England? Go right ahead.

Based on the bestseller by Philippa Gregory, this is costume drama in which the bodices are as tight as the dramatic plausibility is loose. It takes as its starting point the shadowy affair that may have occurred between Henry VIII and Mary Boleyn, before the latter's sister, Anne, made her infamous marriage with the king. Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance), a socially ambitious nobleman, learns that the king's wife, Catherine of Aragon, cannot provide him with the male heir he desperately craves. In league with his machiavellian relative, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey), Boleyn at first pimps out his daughter Anne (Natalie Portman) as a mistress to the king, a scheme that goes awry when Henry instead falls for her meeker, mousier sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson). No matter – the Boleyn family seem to be quids in.

Adapted by Peter Morgan (who also wrote The Queen), the story is a tale of two sisters, the one a minx who vamps her way to the throne, the other a dutiful miss who only wanted a quiet life in the country. In another era, we might have seen them played by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who between them would have created enough fire for a hog-roast. Portman and Johansson are game performers both, but they've not been given enough help by the script; their confrontations feel stagey and sluggish when what's required is a little sulphur. Eric Bana, as the king, shows off a buff torso, but doesn't know whether to play him as sensitive romantic or swaggering brute, and falls awkwardly between the two. For a man driven by insane sexual caprice, he stalks through the film looking more burdened by his puff sleeves and thespy cloak – like a wrestler in drag – and his pulling technique ("Tonight," he whispers to Mary in court) is a joke. Sid James in Carry On Henry had more charm.

Watch the trailer for 'The Other Boleyn Girl'.

The pity of it is that The Other Boleyn Girl has got hold of an important theme: the manner in which young women are sacrificed on the altar of men's ambition and cupidity. The king and his unruly lust are bad enough, yet more villainous are the Boleyn girls' father and uncle, whoremongers in pursuit of the royal warrant. As Boleyn's wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) bitterly remarks, her daughters are "traded like cattle for the amusement of men". In the brief screentime allotted her, Scott Thomas appears strongest of all, her illusionless gaze a rebuke to the vile machinations of the Boleyn menfolk. She even bests the king himself when he blusteringly asks, "Where is your daughter?" "Which one?" she icily replies. A little more of her spirit might have made this a movie to reckon with.