This review was corrected on June 18, 2003.
Those crafty Tudors are given the reality-show treatment in Brit telemovie “The Other Boleyn Girl,” which with its handheld lensing, improvised dialogue and confessional interviews often feels like a historical version of “Joe Millionaire.” Shot (and shown at the Taormina fest) on DigiBeta, this first feature by former documaker Philippa Lowthorpe is an interesting experiment in which style dominates over substance. On the small screen, this should draw the “Masterpiece Theater” crowd, as well as adventurous viewers; bigscreen possibilities look unlikely.
Recently married Mary Boleyn (stunning Natascha McElhone) captures the eye of randy Henry VIII (Jared Harris), much to her family’s delight. Her new husband (Anthony Howell) is not thrilled, but pragmatically abandons her to the royal bed.
Mary’s younger and plainer sister, Anne (Jodhi May), has a quick affair of her own and is banished by her family to a distant castle. By the time Anne returns to the fold, Mary’s carrying a royal bastard within her womb. However, her sexual unavailability during her pregnancy leads Henry to search for another plaything, and Anne steps into the breach.
Lowthorpe makes abrupt transitions in time, skipping lightly over, or ignoring, major historical events (the divorce from Katherine of Aragon, the Schism).
Surprisingly, script includes old calumny of incest between Anne and her brother, George (Steven Mackintosh). The reasoning — that Anne’s desperate need to produce a male heir leads her to turn to her brother as the only man she can trust to impregnate her — is still a tall order to believe, as it was in Tudor times.
Although pic’s title implies the story will focus on the less famous of the Boleyn girls, it is Anne who has the meatier role, as in history. However, Mary is by far the more fortunate one, and McElhone has a calm solid presence that acts as an anchor when everything else, camera included, is spinning out of control.
Lowthorpe’s direction is over-fond of backs and shots of people walking away, presumably to give the viewer an interloper feel. In the end, the use of a pseudo-docu style, that veers off into a “Blackadder-like version of MTV’s “The Real World,” is unsatisfying. Talking-head confessions by the two sisters tend toward coyness or girlish giggles and give little extra insight into characters.
Lowthorpe spent four weeks training her stars in improv, and it’s a tribute to her casting that the dialogue runs smoothly.