Like the sibling rivals whose romantic lives it lovingly details, "The Other Boleyn Girl" has ideas above its station. Not content to be a mildly diverting royal bodice-ripper, it spirals out of control into the kind of overwrought dramaturgy that's out of its league.
Not, of course, that there was much room for choice in how the plot went. "The Other Boleyn Girl" is based on Philippa Gregory's hugely popular, 1-million-copies-in-print novel, which in turn is taken from the history of 16th century Tudor England and the reign of King Henry VIII and his second queen, Anne Boleyn.
If that all sounds familiar, it may be because of 1969's movie on the same subject, "Anne of the Thousand Days," starring Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold. The breathless ad line for the first film sets the tone for this one as well: "He was King. She was barely 18. And in their thousand days they played out the most passionate and shocking love story in history!"
What's different about this version of the tale, however, is its emphasis on Anne's sister Mary being the first of the two Boleyn women to, as they say, share the king's bed. How all that happened, and the various melodramatic ways that sisterly rivalry played out, is the bait that lured the film's prestigious writer, director and stars.
It's dark-haired Natalie Portman in for Bujold as the flirtatious vamp Anne, given to saying cheeky things such as "Betrothed is not married." Playing kinder, gentler Mary -- a simple, uncomplicated girl unburdened by ambition -- is Scarlett Johansson. And Eric Bana exercises his divine right to be a smoldering hunk as the king who came between them, the man who simply has to whisper the word "tonight" to get women lining up for a time share in that royal bed.
Adapting Gregory's novel is Peter Morgan, Oscar-nominated for writing "The Queen" for Helen Mirren and an earlier, Emmy-winning "Henry VIII" for Ray Winstone and is apparently the go-to guy for royal-intensive scripts. The director is British TV veteran Justin Chadwick, whose adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Bleak House" was a recent hit.
Initially "The Other Boleyn Girl" is good, genteelly trashy fun. It shows the two sisters as pawns in the family pursuit of wealth and position, masterminded by their father (Mark Rylance) and their nasty uncle the Duke of Norfolk (a snarky David Morrissey) in order to catch the eye of a king desperate for a male heir.
Even a currently married monarch, the ladies are carefully instructed, "sometimes seeks comfort elsewhere." So despite spoilsport grousing by their mother (the always effective Kristin Scott Thomas) about women being "traded like cattle for the advancement and entertainment of men," that's exactly what happens.
With rich costumes by two-time Oscar-winner Sandy Powell and vivid production design by John-Paul Kelly, "The Other Boleyn Girl" gets points for color and pageantry, with lots of pounding hoofbeats, flying banners and royal striding through stately halls.
Given that Mary is already married, it's supposed to be Anne who attracts the king's attention first. But the stresses of his job -- "I'm lied to 100 times a day," he says, making monarchy sound like training for a career in Hollywood -- draw him to the sincere-to-a-fault Mary, a turn of events which irks Anne no end.
But wouldn't you know it, complications keep Mary from closing the deal and Anne has to be brought in from the bullpen (actually the royal court in France, where she's been learning "the art of being a woman") to keep the king interested in the family. A picture of brunet ambition, ultimate schemer Anne thinks she knows how to get her man. And she does, up to a point.
The same can be said about the entertainment value of "The Other Boleyn Girl," which is OK as far as it goes, which is not far enough. Morgan's dialogue, rife with lines such as "Would a smile be too much to ask?" and the ever-popular "It costs a fortune to get this house ready for a royal visit," sounds too modern too often. And though the cast does adequate work, director Chadwick has not been able to get them to do anything better than that.
Just when "The Other Boleyn Girl" should be picking up steam, when the plot thickens and the tale gets darker, the storytelling style turns off-putting and glum. Yes, there is that bright moment when Anne reports having to "resort to degrading techniques" to hold the king's romantic interest, but it's a false alarm. By the time her fed-up sister tells her, "I've seen enough," we have as well.
"The Other Boleyn Girl." MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content and some violent images. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. In general release.