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Originally published Friday, February 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Portman, Johansson vie for king in period drama "The Other Boleyn Girl"

Two beautiful sisters, each mistress of the same handsome king. Heaving bosoms. Discreet sex scenes in firelit rooms. Smoldering torches torches. Public...

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

"The Other Boleyn Girl," with Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana, Kristin Scott Thomas, Mark Rylance, David Morrissey. Directed by Justin Chadwick, from a screenplay by Peter Morgan, based on the novel by Philippa Gregory. 111 minutes. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content and some violent images. Several theaters.

Two beautiful sisters, each mistress of the same handsome king. Heaving bosoms. Discreet sex scenes in firelit rooms. Smoldering torches. Public executions. Royal out-of-wedlock pregnancies. A sprinkling of incest and a massive dollop of scheming. Is "The Other Boleyn Girl" history, an art-house bodice-ripper or a TV miniseries blown up large?

Whatever it is, it's certainly entertaining. What it isn't, really, is Philippa Gregory's best-selling novel; the screen adaptation by Peter Morgan ("The Queen") vastly simplifies Gregory's sprawling tale of the fortunes of sisters Anne and Mary Boleyn in the court of King Henry VIII. (Morgan has trod this territory before; he wrote the 2003 television miniseries "Henry VIII.") I'll leave it to the historians to decide how much of the tale is true and how much is conjecture or fiction, but let's say this: Had this particular version of history been taught in high school, a lot of us might have paid more attention.

Director Justin Chadwick (TV's "Bleak House") keeps the streamlined story moving along tidily, letting the audience focus on the film's two very different central performances. Natalie Portman is elder sister Anne, depicted here as something of an ambitious schemer; Scarlett Johansson is Mary, content to live a quiet country life. A powerful uncle (David Morrissey), with their father (Mark Rylance) arranges to place Anne under the eye of the king (Eric Bana, smiling knowingly), but initially it is Mary to whom he is drawn. Stage-managed by their male relatives (while their mother mutters disapproval in that way that only Kristin Scott Thomas can), the sisters rise and fall in favor; a pair of pawns shuffled by those who hold the power.

Portman's role is showier (in a central scene, she's a vision in an emerald-green gown), and she gets plenty of opportunity to demonstrate a slightly wicked, mocking chin-down smile. "Try to please him, if you can," Anne snips to Mary, as her frightened sister first heads to the king's bedchamber; it's an enjoyably nasty performance.

But it never develops beyond that note, while Johansson's quieter performance blossoms. Mary is beautiful but shy and awkward; her uncomfortable smile suggesting that she's embarrassed by the lushness of her lips. When she falls in love with the king, she does so quietly, with the cameras catching her soft glow. It's a subtle performance in a tricky role, and Johansson ends up gently stealing the movie.

Chadwick surrounds them with period details that are never too elaborate, with Sandy Powell's costumes both pretty and restrained, and cinematographer Kieran McGuigan finds some painterly light that beautifully frames the actresses. Though there's some evidence that Morgan's pruning job left a few loose ends (the character of Jane Parker, for example, is left mystifyingly vague), "The Other Boleyn Girl" is an agreeable piece of filmmaking, carefully and sometimes artfully balancing solemnity with fluff.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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