Sibling rivalry gets medieval

Nowadays, marriages come and go so quickly society no longer blinks an eye, but it hasn’t always been this way. In the world of The Other Boleyn Girl, which takes place in England in the 1500s, women were routinely arranged to marry someone of higher social status in order to secure prosperity for their families.

When The Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey) sees an opportunity for his family to align with royalty, he recruits his fetching young niece, Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman) to ensnare the attention of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana of Troy and Munich). When Henry unexpectedly takes a liking to Anne’s younger sister, Mary (Scarlett Johansson), the sisters engage in an epic rivalry as they compete for Henry’s royal affections.

Based on the novel by Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl is a sweeping period piece – the kind that typically draws the attention of the Oscar voters. But while the costumes and art direction are impressive, the film’s focus is the plight of women during the period.

Throughout the film, the Boleyn sisters are manipulated by the men in their lives – even their own father. They continually struggle between their family’s ambition and their own desires, and the film never forgets that their wishes are clearly regarded as secondary.

Much of the plot is concerned with Henry’s obsession for a male heir, and this male-dominated world provides a nice counterbalance to the film’s feminist focus. Although its underlying battle of the sexes clearly favors men as the dominant figures, The Other Boleyn Girl offers a hopeful conclusion that hints to change on the horizon.

Despite the age in which they live, neither Anne nor Mary is entirely submissive. Director Justin Chadwick – making his theatrical feature debut – puts considerable effort into portraying his female characters as strong figures who think independently in spite of their oppression. Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient), who plays Anne and Mary’s mother, Lady Elizabeth Boleyn, even mentions at one point that a woman’s job is to let the men think they are in charge.

Although the film features strong performances by Johansson, Thomas and Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe, next month’s 21), it belongs to Portman, who gives her best performance since her Academy Award-nominated role in 2004’s Closer. Her character is the driving force behind the film, and Portman gets a chance to show off her emotional range. Aside from being a fascinating historical figure, Anne Boleyn – as portrayed by Portman – is vindictive and calculating yet simultaneously repentant and trapped.

Much like 2006’s The Queen (also written by Boleyn screenwriter Peter Morgan), the film offers a behind-the-scenes look at one of British history’s most fascinating figures. Whether the film is historically accurate is forgotten as the explosive performance by Portman elevates the production. While it can be a tad unsettling at times, The Other Boleyn Girl is a worthy, though not outstanding, historical epic.

Rating: PG-13Runtime: 115 min.Grade: B