Marketed as a racy bodice-ripper a la FOREVER AMBER (1947), U.K. TV director Justin Chadwick's adaptation of Philippa Gregory's Tudor-era novel strikes an uneasy balance between politics and illicit passion. But it's a terrific showcase for battling Boleyn babes Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman.
England, 1522: King Henry VIII (Eric Bana) is increasingly convinced that his aging queen, Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent), will never provide the male heir he so desperately desires, and the well-connected Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey) is anxious to devise a way for his family to benefit from the situation before every social climber and power monger in Albion gets word of it. The Duke's brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance), has two comely daughters: headstrong, dark-eyed Anne (Portman) and her submissive, golden-haired younger sister, Mary (Johansson). Since Mary is recently married, they settle on Anne as a candidate for the king's consort and maneuver her into the monarch's line of sight. Anne's notorious mettle initially proves her undoing, and Henry instead takes a liking to the gentle Mary: The stage is set for a lifelong rivalry between the siblings. The Boleyn family, including brother George (Jim Sturgess) and matriarch Lady Elizabeth (Kristin Scott Thomas), is installed at Hampton Court Palace, and the machinations that eventually sever England's connection with the Catholic church and Anne's head from her shoulders begin.
The steamy combination of politicking and frolicking –- not to mention the fabulous clothes -- has made the Tudor court the subject of countless more-or-less historical novels, films and TV programs, most recently ELIZABETH (1998) and ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE (2007), Showtime's The Tudors, HBO's Elizabeth I (2005) and an acclaimed BBC adaptation of The Other Boleyn Girl (2003). Peter Morgan's (THE QUEEN, THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND) adaptation of Gregory's popular novel is more focused on sins of ambition than sins of the flesh -- for all his legendary appetites, Henry didn't make his legendary six trips to the altar out of lust. Unfortunately, keeping the film's running time under two hours meant trimming political complications to make room for some soft-focus rumpy pumpy. And let's face it: If you swap out power for sex, the sex needs to be hotter than a PG-13 rating generally facilitates. All that said, Portman and Johansson are phenomenal alone and together, and each looks more delectable than the other in 16th-century silks and satins, atwinkle with glittering gems -- Anne's pioneering "B" pendant, dripping with oversized pearls, is an especially witty touch. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh