Movie News & Reviews

A steamy, soapy bevy of betrayals

And you thought "Desperate Housewives" and TV soap operas were racy.

Loosely based on the history-inspired novel by Philippa Gregory, "The Other Boleyn Girl" is a condensed yet melodramatic film replete with back-stabbing, power grabbing and bed hopping, all in the name of family stature. The story makes today's small-screen dramas pale by comparison.

It is the 1500s and, thanks to the marvelous bejeweled costumes, lush countryside and luxurious sets, we are treated to an up-close look at the young, the restless and the royal.

This engrossing, at times outrageous yarn exposes the pitfalls of power, sibling rivalry and lust gone awry, all neatly tied up in less than two hours.

"To get ahead in this world, you need more than fair looks and a kind heart." Just ask family matriarch Elizabeth (a proud and palpably frustrated Kristin Scott Thomas) and her husband Sir Thomas Boleyn, played by Mark Rylance in a mesmerizing turn that blends dour discipline and fatherly fairness.

With a son and two willful daughters looking to cash in on their uncle's royal connections, the couple is under pressure to climb the societal ladder and will do (or sacrifice) anything to get ahead.

First presented to the world is thoughtful and waiflike Mary. As portrayed by a superb Scarlett Johansson, Mary seems content to marry her one true love, avoid "Court" (the rat race of the day) and live happily ever after in the countryside.

Alas, her father and uncle, the plotting Duke of Norfolk (a delightfully sinister David Morrissey) have other ideas.

Privy to some extremely personal information about the King, his wife and the waning possibilities for a male heir, they persuade Mary to leave her husband and "divert" the King of England -- using whatever seductive powers and charms at her disposal.

Not a very difficult task, as it turns out. Eric Bana plays Henry with an imposing show of pomp and menace so as to be frightfully realistic and yet still charming. What he wants, he gets, no matter the cost to family or country.

While Mary is confined to bed during pregnancy, older sister Anne steps in and takes over, ordered by her family to "bewitch" the lonely King. As the bolder, wilder sister, Natalie Portman seems comfortable, even eager for the challenge. And while her fearless flirting is occasionally stymied, she appears much more seductive and conniving.

After Mary is tossed aside, Anne successfully catches the king's fancy.

Anne wants it all: marriage, a son, and recognition as the legitimate Queen of England. For a time, she manages to pull it off. Sitting Queen Katherine (a warm yet slightly pitiful Ana Torrent) is banished, and Henry is persuaded to break with the Roman Catholic Church.

Ambition, greed, adultery. Talk about timeless.

To call this bevy of beheadings and betrayal dark would be gross understatement. Beyond the background shadows, eerie forest rustling and, of course, haunting music, each line is uttered with an extra moment of stare, glare and scowl.

Mirror images of morality, the sisters offer harsh lessons: One learns when to stand and defend herself; the other learns the limits of her wiles.

Or, as the Queen warns: "Love without position and power has no value."