The Other Boleyn Girl may not be big on complexity of characterization, but it features a high incidence of bodice-ripping. It's just a soap opera, but it's a soap opera with rich-looking people in period costume and speaking with British accents, so you know it's way more sophisticated than the juvenile fare that plays on daytime TV. Those are merely sensationalized serial dramas, but this ... this is history.
Sorry, no. What this is, is Knots Landing or Dallas with the limousines and ten-gallon hats replaced by royal coaches and those floppy Renaissance hats.
With more than 700 pages of a romance-novel approach to history to slosh around in, Phillippa Gregory could immerse her readers in boatloads of character motivation. A two-hour movie needs some giddy-up, however, and especially in the last half-hour, director Justin Chadwick rushes to cram in all manner of historical incidents. He even explores the potential of the ol' last-minute-reprieve-from-the-governor, er, king device.
The Other Boleyn Girl loses no opportunity to have the two sisters huddle (at first supportively, then in jealousy, then with claws fully extended) just before one or the other of them enters an ornate bedroom for a night of hot sweaty Tudor love with whichever husband/adulterous nobleman/rakish king is at hand. (It's hard to keep track. Sluts.)
As "the King! the King!" (cue pounding of horses' hooves), Eric Bana's main function is to cast smoldering looks while brooding and wearing broad-shouldered coats made from the fur of several different marsupials. In public, he does much clenching and unclenching of his bejeweled fists. But he prefers his privacy, lying all snuggly near the fire in his lair until the next wench is brought to him and he can show off glimpses of his writhing torso. It's a portrait of Henry as playboy tyrant -- like Stalin without the walrus face, but with a stronger sex drive.
OBG does have value in providing a sense of what it must have been like to live under a system of arranged aristocratic marriages and inherited, whimsical tyranny. A Boleyn girl simply has no chance with an uncle (played by the venomous David Morrissey) who thrusts them at the king and then demands to know whether he "had" them, and how often. Kristin Scott Thomas, as the Boleyns' mother, provides about the only character worth rooting for, since she has the fortitude to protest.
OBG is saddled with the problems of much historical fiction (too much exposition, telescoped dates) and with additional, self-imposed problems. Feminist historians have lionized Anne as a strong, independent woman who threatened the good ol' boys of her era. But novelist Gregory, adopting the revisionist views of a few historians, turns Anne into a manipulative hussy. There's not much room for nuance here, and Natalie Portman doesn't find it.
During the first act, clearly we're supposed to care about the two Boleyn girls' fates, when they hadn't yet even been properly distinguished from each other. Oh, wait, now I get it: Scarlett Johansson is Mary Boleyn the goody-goody, and Portman is Anne the flirtatious, scheming witch. Now that that's sorted, we can skip across the plot points and keep things moving. We might have franchise possibilities here.
Wait, I've got the title for the sequel: Elizabethan Catfight! Or maybe they could just try this: No More Boleyn Girls.