Fine performances make up for some clumsy storytelling (almost)

Director Justin Chadwick doesn’t give Henry VIII a lot of credit. In the second adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s novel (the first was a made-for-TV movie) Henry (Eric Bana) is portrayed as little more than a pawn in a family power struggle between the Boleyn sisters both of whom are being manipulated by their uncle the Duke of Norfolk in an effort to put the family in a position of power within England. The king’s history-changing decisions like breaking from the Catholic Church and abandoning his first wife are glossed over to make room for the bitch-fest.

To say that Henry VIII is unjustly ignored though is not a fair complaint — the movie after all is about the Boleyn girls. Chadwick’s storytelling is efficient though often heavy-handed. The audience is never asked to figure anything out on its own. Overbearing dialogue and unnecessary scenes confirm every the viewer’s suspicion.

Though there is admittedly a lot of story to tell the film is unjustly rushed. Entire pregnancies last just minutes characters fall in and out of the king’s favour at remarkable speed and Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman) flickers like a light switch between arrogant bravery and nervous meltdowns. The swift passage of time may not seem like a big deal until characters that have been “exiled” from the kingdom are barely off screen for a minute before their return destroying the illusion that they’ve really missed anything.

Despite its flaws the film features some great performances — especially by Portman who offers a reprieve from the stiff and proper acting that usually pervades period pieces from this era. Bana and Scarlett Johansson also turn in nuanced performances that resist the urge to portray some of history’s most famous characters as more than human. Still to use the language of last week’s Oscar ceremony The Other Boleyn Sister is more of a “best costume design” movie than a “best picture.”