Early on in Karim Aïnouz’s richly textured and suspenseful historical drama, Firebrand, King Henry VIII commends his sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr, on her excellent job filling in as Regent while he’s been abroad engaged in warfare. Never mind the efforts to limit her powers to inconsequential matters, he tells her she won’t have to worry her “pretty little head” about all that anymore. The threat posed by women who think for themselves to the absolute power of men is a central theme in this starch-free tale of Tudor intrigue, its protofeminist perspective seamlessly woven into the narrative fabric without a hint of the didactic.
Brazilian director Aïnouz has been making hypnotically sensual movies laced with luxuriant melancholy for more than 20 years, among them such beguiling dramas as Madame Satã, The Silver Cliff and the criminally under-appreciated jewel Invisible Life (seriously, check it out, you’ll thank me), as well as numerous distinctive documentaries.
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His English-language debut, adapted from Elizabeth Freemantle’s lauded novel The Queen’s Gambit by screenwriters Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth, is something of a departure for Aïnouz into the potentially stiffer domain of period drama. But Firebrand, despite being steeped in the atmospheric grit and gloom of a country enveloped by plague and under tyrannical rule, is alive with vigorous contemporary attitude. It steers clear of the usual anachronistic tricks (save for the exhilarating deployment of a PJ Harvey banger over the end credits), instead instilling its modernity and its reflections on gender disparity and spousal abuse by subtler means.
In many ways it’s a spiritual prequel to Elizabeth, the terrific 1998 bio-drama that thrust Cate Blanchett onto the map, even if there were two monarchs between Henry VIII and the Virgin Queen — portrayed here as a sharply observant young woman by bright newcomer Junia Rees, who gets a stunner of a final shot.
Like the Blanchett film, Firebrand provides a great leading role for an actress to bite into, which Alicia Vikander does with gusto, but also with the restraint and watchful self-possession of a woman well aware that it hasn’t always ended well for her predecessors in Henry’s bed. It’s her best work since Ex Machina.
As for the ailing monarch, pained by swollen legs, ulcerated with gout and oozing blood and malodorous pus, Jude Law is frighteningly mercurial. Jovial one minute and dangerous the next, his Henry is a man whose body is failing him, quite literally festering with poison. He’s either grunting away on top of Catherine like a heaving mass or side-eyeing her with suspicions of betrayal. His two favorite words appear to be “Shut up!”
What’s possibly most impressive in Law’s layered performance is the evidence under Henry’s ruthlessness that he really does love Catherine enough to pray that she doesn’t turn out to be like the others, all of whom he believes failed or betrayed him. His rage is terrifying when he rails at the Lord for testing him, foaming at the mouth with his handy method of dispatching inconvenient wives: “We cut them down!”
Henry’s chief gripe aside from being barely ambulatory is his indignation about the growing following of the Protestant radicals itching for a revolution that would allow them to worship God over king. One such radical faction is led by Catherine’s childhood friend Anne Askew (Erin Doherty), whose fiery passion for the cause lands her on the wanted list for treason. Catherine’s visit to Anne at a shrine during Henry’s absence puts her at risk, as does a later meeting where she gives Anne a valuable necklace she received from Henry, urging her to sell it for money to get through the winter.
The king’s growing distrust of Catherine is fueled by the constant whispers in his ear from the fiercely anti-Protestant Bishop Stephen Gardiner (played with sinister Machiavellian purpose by the brilliant Simon Russell Beale). Aware that Henry’s days are numbered and anxious to orchestrate the succession his way, he steadily increases his efforts to incriminate Catherine for treason.
The Bishop’s determination to prove her association with Anne Askew involves interrogating guards and her ladies-in-waiting, who remain unflinchingly loyal despite threats of execution. Gardiner also leans hard on Edward Seymour (Eddie Marsan), uncle of the possible future king, to provide evidence of Catherine’s extramarital relationship with his brother Thomas (Sam Riley). But Catherine is too smart to risk infidelity, though the two have remained close.
Anyone familiar with who among Henry’s wives died, was cast out or survived knows the outcome for Catherine, making it surprising how skillfully the filmmakers build nail-biting tension around her fate. That comes with a major assist from Dickon Hinchliffe’s brooding symphonic score, its range and power expertly modulated throughout. The final days of Henry’s life become a time of terror for Catherine, and her course of action is perhaps one of the screenwriters’ most significant — and startlingly effective — detours into speculative fiction.
In most dramas of ancient royal chicanery, the intrinsically good character is the least interesting. That’s not at all the case here with Vikander’s Catherine, an enlightened woman who’s all about quiet control. She remains firm in her idealistic beliefs despite the rot that surrounds her, mostly keeps her own counsel and is gutsy enough to risk offending the king if it means snatching back her dignity after one of his routine public humiliations.
In some ways the film’s title is a misnomer in that she’s nobody’s conventional idea of a firebrand, but the certainty of her commitment is clear even under the worst duress. Never over-emphasizing the character’s uncommon courage, Vikander also conveys real fear, alongside Catherine’s resolve, and her agony is wrenching in a scene where the potential lifeline of delivering Henry a son slips from her grasp.
There are lovely moments of solidarity among the women — the young Elizabeth as well as Catherine’s staff — that feed into the thematic foundation of women bringing an escape from the brutality of men and war, as well as being capable of forging pathways into the light, more open and tolerant. The very existence of this film, as Aïnouz points out, is a reminder of how much more fixated history generally is on dead women than survivors.
The consistently engrossing storytelling is matched by sumptuous, often painterly visuals, with cinematographer Hélène Louvart’s discreet rigging creating the illusion of using only natural light in the interiors from candles, fireplaces or windows. The production and costume design (Helen Scott and Michael O’Connor, respectively) also are first-rate, from the high-born characters in their finery to the radicals in rags. For fans of historical drama with edge and vitality, this one’s very much worth your time.
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