The tale of Mary (Scarlett Johansson), the little-known sister of Anne Boleyn, is limned in The Other Boleyn Girl. Based on Philippa Gregory’s popular historical romance, it shows how Mary initially caught the eye of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana), although her family’s plan was to have Anne (Natalie Portman) become the royal mistress with all the favors that position entailed. Though married to William Carey (Benedict Cumberbatch), Mary becomes pregnant by Henry and, during this physical imposition, in which she must “lie in,” the seethingly jealous Anne takes over to bewitch the randy monarch. This she does to a fare-thee-well, eventually overturning the Catholic Church in England itself, when Henry divorces his unloved barren bride, Catherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent), and makes Anne queen. It is not a position she enjoys long, for after giving him only a daughter, the future Elizabeth I, Henry tires of her and finally has her executed to be rid of her.

Peter Morgan, who proved he knows from royalty in his script for The Queen, has fashioned a fast-paced, competent adaptation which Brit TV director Justin Chadwick has lensed with verve. It was shot in HD, which, although effective in the rich interior scenes of various castles, is less so in exterior sequences. (The skies always look too busy.) But the film is, withal, a highly absorbing rendition of an endlessly fascinating tale which nearly effaces the definitive treatment of it, the 1969 Anne of the Thousand Days, with its superb central performance by Genevieve Bujold. (Anne has also been played film-wise by Henny Porten in the 1921 Anne Boleyn by Ernst Lubitsch; Merle Oberon, a brief but exotic star-making turn in The Private Life of Henry VIII, and Vanessa Redgrave in a silent cameo in A Man for All Seasons.)

Portman is almost as good as Bujold was, delivering her strongest portrayal so far. Her Anne, gorgeously costumed by Sandy Powell, has a Bette Davis ferocity boiling under her wimple, and she makes this too-clever girl’s ambitiousness real in the extreme. The film intriguingly deals with the incestuous relationship she was accused of having with her brother George (Jim Sturgess) and Portman does not stint from perversity here. Johansson’s character—largely imagined by Gregory, as there are few actual references about her—is less confidently drawn, as is her Brit accent, but she evinces an admirable strength in the latter moments when Mary has to show her supportive, sisterly stuff. The chemistry the actresses share, essential to the film’s success, is genuine—mercurial and moving.

Kristin Scott Thomas has a splendid authority as their mother, Torent is touching and, blessedly, authentically Spanish as the unwanted Catherine, and David Morrissey is a hiss-worthy slimy villain as the Duke of Norfolk, whose machinations resulted in such awful ends for the Boleyns. Bana makes a younger, sexy Henry whom you can easily believe girls ruining themselves over, but Anne’s fall from favor is so fast—as it was in Anne of the Thousand Days—that the character becomes something of a cipher.