Director Justin Chadwick (Bleak House) continues the current trend of screen portrayals of Henry VIII’s court that resemble Hollyoaks in hoop skirts (see The Tudors). His adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s historical fiction about the Boleyn sisters is a vivid and enjoyably trashy film that doesn’t stint on the soap. This right royal love triangle, in which Scarlett Johansson’s docile beauty Mary Boleyn competes with hell-cat sister Anne (Natalie Portman) for the attentions of Henry VIII (Eric Bana), has it all – sisterly scheming, family betrayals, rape, adultery, even incest.
Still, screenwriter-du-jour Peter Morgan (The Queen) manages to infuse the melodrama with an ever-tightening paranoia, which deftly underlines the largely helpless position the Boleyn girls find themselves in as they are thrown under the Tudor King’s nose to advance their family’s fortunes. From the minute that Bana’s romping, foot-stomping Henry VIII abandons the pregnant Mary in favour of Anne’s deliberately bold wit and flashing eyes, Morgan’s pithy scripting cranks up the tension relentlessly.
And even when the story is at its toshiest (the film’s cavalier take on Tudor history will set David Starkey spinning like a rotisserie chicken), Portman draws the eye with a barnstorming turn, alternately wilful temptress and wild-eyed child, appalled at what her plotting to ensnare the king has wrought. Her troubled relationship with the demurely beautiful Johansson (“my milk-and-honey sister”, as Anne dubs her) is the emotional centre of the film. Meanwhile, Bana struggles to make his Henry VIII more than a capricious serial shagger, engaged in clunking chats about divorcing himself (and England) from the Catholic Church in order to legally bed the prick-teasing Anne.
Despite a few comedy mis-castings (notably David Morrissey, hammily playing the treacherous Duke of Norfolk as if he was auditioning for Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head), the combination of Chadwick’s rich visual palette and dynamic camerawork with Portman’s no-holds-barred performance whips this punchy, period chick-flick into one of this month’s guiltiest pleasures.