One Survived: Ainouz Attempts to Give a Queen Her Due
The Tudor era has maintained public fascination for the past five hundred years, a linchpin for the highly romantic royal fiction still being churned out in literature and film, creating a thriving subgenre of its own. Every generation tends to see a new handful of actors portraying the mainstays, particularly Elizabeth I and her decapitated mother, Anne Boleyn, the doomed second wife of Henry VIII. Out of Henry’s six wives, the first three tend to generate the most eternal interest, each of them giving Henry a child, including his two daughters who played significant roles in their political histories. So it’s something of a novelty for a high profile focus on his sixth wife, Catherine Parr, the only one who survived—but ultimately due to her own cunning and the king’s rapidly declining health. Karim Aïnouz adapts Elizabeth Freemantle’s 2013 fictional melodrama Queen’s Gambit as Firebrand, though the credit should be ‘suggested by’ considering the significant alterations from the novel (which is a full blown melodramatic piece of royal pulp, but surprisingly more historically accurate than this film version). Scripted by Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth, Aïnouz unleashes a somewhat tepid affair, negating Parr’s complex relationship to the Tudors (and a couple other husbands) for a neutered period piece which could have withstood to loosen its suffocating corset.
In London, England, 1544, Catherine Parr (Alicia Vikander), the sixth and final wife to King Henry VIII (Jude Law) enjoyed the distinction of ruling as regent during his last military campaign in France. In the same year, she also became the first woman in England to publish her own work using her own name, Psalms of Prayers. But it was also a year of considerable anxiety with a growing unrest amongst the people demanding religious reforms. One of the outspoken linchpins in the reform movement is Anne Askew (Erin Doherty), a childhood friend of Catherine’s, whom the queen’s been sneaking out of the castle to meet with clandestinely during Henry’s absence. Gifting Anne a royal necklace so she may finance safe passage during the winter will immediately haunt her when Henry returns early and Anne is burnt at the stake. Meanwhile, Henry’s legs, which are rotting away with infection, has caused the mercurial king to be more ornery than normal, and the conniving Bishop Gardiner (Simon Russell Beale) campaigns to turn the king against his wife, warning him of her affiliation with Thomas Seymour (Sam Riley), who had previously tried to woo the queen before their marriage. A surprise pregnancy allows her sudden safety, and a newly secured spot in the will to act as Dowager to his son Edward. But such safety is fleeting, as the Bishop is allowed to lead an investigation of heresy against Catherine.
This isn’t Alicia Vikander’s first time at the royal rodeo, having portrayed Caroline Matilda, Queen of Denmark and Norway in Nikolaj Arcel’s much more emotive A Royal Affair (2012). Since we’re introduced to Catherine Parr after she’s already queen, acting as Regent during Henry’s last tour in France, we don’t get a sense of the somewhat chaotic background which brought her to this post, as well as the rather anxious air of a court which saw its last queen, Katherine Howard, beheaded, whilst the plague and a very nasty struggle for religious reformation would begin a violent scourge carried on through the eventual reign of Henry’s eldest daughter, Mary (who would come to be known as the infamous ‘Bloody Mary’).
Again, the historical contexts are rife with juicy possibilities, something Philippa Gregory has clearly capitalized upon, so why Firebrand is so compulsively mediocre (and while brandishing this title in particular) is baffling. For her part, Vikander is credible enough as a conniving former Catholic turned secret Protestant who truly believes the people should be able to read the Bible and recite scripture in English (which means potentially questioning those in power when they can understand what’s actually being discussed) but the importance of this is lost within a script which charts her last days with Henry’s like a horse with blinders. Parr’s publications are mentioned briefly in passing, the significance of this passed off as a mere footnote. Instead, Ainouz chooses to bookend Parr’s tale with narration from her stepdaughter Elizabeth (Junia Rees), making it seem like this is merely the prologue to a more famous ruler’s story, a reference to the woman who walked so the latter could run.
Everything about Firebrand seems hellbent on assuming a period melodrama requires its storytelling tactics also remain old fashioned, and this includes cinematographer Helene Louvart’s subdued frames. Jude Law seems to be enjoying the hamminess of the onerous Henry, and though he’s still a bit too well maintained to be as a believable dying king (Richard Burton in 1969’s Anne of the Thousand Days was a better fit for this period, even though the timeline of that film had four more wives for him to run through). In actuality, it’s Henry’s gouty ankles and the bloody, pus drenched abscesses on his legs as he insistently copulates with Katherine for a spare heir generating the only real level of repulsion the rest of the film should also be aiming for.
Her relationship with the Seymours (the brothers to the deceased Jane Seymour, wife #3 and mum to Edward VI) includes an initially sympathetic Edward (an uncustomarily sensitive Eddie Marsan) and his lothario sibling Thomas, where Sam Riley feels like wasted casting considering the man would secretly wed Katherine after Henry’s death and have a child with her…before it was revealed he also pursuing Elizabeth. But these formidable fluctuations of alliances get rolled into something too condensed. If Fremantle’s text was taking considerable liberties filling in the emotional gaps, the revenge laden finale of Firebrand plays like pure sensationalism rather than the provocative conjecture the opening statement uses as an excuse for turning historical figures into fantasy.
Reviewed on May 21st at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival – Competition. 120 Mins.