It's one thing to try to squeeze some easy money out of adapting a popular historical romance novel into a feature film. It's another to slapdash it together so carelessly that you end up having a 16th-century stag hunt set to what sounds like the music from "The Rainmaker."
Director Justin Chadwick's cheapo adaptation, written by Peter Morgan from the popular novel by Philippa Gregory, follows the lucky ascension of the two Boleyn girls -- or as Katherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent) thinks of them, the "Boleyn sluts" Mary (Scarlett Johansson) and Anne (Natalie Portman), from being the provincial daughters of lesser nobility to courtesans in the internecine court of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana).
Though some questions have been raised about the historical accuracy of the source material, sadly that's hardly the concern of this version, which reduces the subject to the level of a Tudor-era "Melrose Place."
Our introduction to the court of Henry arrives with the unfortunate stillbirth of a son by Katherine of Aragon, Henry's queen. Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) and his conniving brother-in-law (David Morrissey) think this latest disappointment to provide an heir to the throne is the perfect opportunity to assuage Henry's frustration with one of their girls. They decide that Anne should hound him during a visit, but fate thrusts her sister Mary into his arms, much to Anne's consternation. Henry, however, ends up having both of them after they arrive at court, setting off a chain of intrigue and bad decision-making that will eventually land the equally heirless Anne on the proverbial chopping block.
"Boleyn" sometimes achieves a blend of historical significance and everyday realism, but while it's interesting to see a culture so engrossed by money and ambition that children are routinely traded for it, any bits of observation, clever or mundane, appear accidental. Every inch of the production feels like a rush job, from the hype-filled but unimaginative casting decisions, to those actors' soap-opera deliveries, to the unimpressive sets they inhabit.
Johansson, as usual, fills in nicely as an arrangement of busty topiary, but Portman and Bana, whose characters are supposed to have been graceful, accomplished and urbane, are given actual dialogue, which they read in the same monotone, grumpy note. They are more like an empty-headed high-school couple than rulers of all England. "Boleyn" is their utterly forgettable prom. (PG-13) 115 min. S