Were it not arriving in the theaters in the immediate aftermath of the awards season, Justin Chadwick's "The Other Boleyn Girl" would look like surefire Oscar bait on paper. Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, and Eric Bana do the British accent in a 16th-century costume drama from the screenwriter of "The Queen" and "The Last King of Scotland," and the producer of "No Country for Old Men." What might have packed an auditorium or two at the Angelika on Christmas Day now seems like so much leftover turkey in late February. This adaptation of Philippa Gregory's eponymous novel is a fictionalized account of the alleged affairs between King Henry VIII (Mr. Bana) and sisters Anne (Ms. Portman) and Mary Boleyn (Ms. Johansson). Frustrated by the inability of Queen Catherine (Ana Torrent) to produce a male heir to the throne, the king is on the prowl for a royal broodmare to accomplish that mission.
Seizing the opportunity for social-ladder climbing, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey) convinces Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) to pimp his daughter, Anne, to the monarchy. When a faux pas on Anne's part affronts the king, the family dispatches the already-married Mary to seal the deal. But by the time Mary gives birth to Henry's son, the king is bowing at Anne's feet. Eventually, Henry annuls his marriage to Catherine without the pope's blessing in order to marry Anne, and causes England to sever its ties with the Catholic church.
In reality, the Reformation was a monumental turning point that brought about significant changes in England. Indeed, the process of England's Reformation and the future of the nation's religious character were fully entangled in Henry VIII's need to produce a male heir and his split with the papacy over such matters. But why dwell on religion and society when you can have lots of sibling rivalry, sex, adultery, and incest instead? That, at least, appears to be screenwriter Peter Morgan's logic. Aside from playing fast and loose with historical facts, he ups the story's trashiness quotient with lurid details as if he were Jon Lovitz scripting the old "Tales of Ribaldry" sketches for "Saturday Night Live." And who knew Henry VIII had such chiseled pectoral muscles? Messrs. Morgan and Chadwick must have taken their history lesson from Showtime's "The Tudors."
One might think that Mr. Morgan has a knack for dishing on royalty in his screenplays. Truth is, "The Queen" and "The Last King of England" are both one-dimensional efforts respectively anchored by career performances from Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker. "The Other Boleyn Girl" has absolutely no contemporary resonance, and sacrifices accuracy for no other reason than unadulterated entertainment. The film is marginally enjoyable in that sort of sleazy Jerry Springer fashion, but the filmmakers aren't making a compelling case here for why their artistic license is necessarily more amusing or insightful than history itself.
Ms. Portman and Ms. Johansson exhibit the giddiness of performers in a high school play. Mr. Bana does that Russell Croweesque brooding bonehead thing very well, but you can't help but wish his Henry VIII was either heartier, like Robert Shaw (in 1966's "A Man for All Seasons"), or more diabolical, like Jonathan Rhys Meyers (in "The Tudors"). In other words, no one of the caliber of Dame Mirren or Mr. Whitaker is here to salvage "The Other Boleyn Girl."