Firebrand Review: Alicia Vikander And Jude Law In The First Movie About Henry VIII With A Feminist POV Cannes Film Festival
Most movies about England’s King Henry VIII like to focus on the mercurial monarch’s failed marriages. His six wives have been collectively described as divorced, died, beheaded, divorced, beheaded, survived. That last one, the little talked-about Katherine Parr, had the distinction of outlasting Henry — their marriage was about four years as he started to succumb to the result of hard living. She was there during that time, but also a wife who if she weren’t so connected to the King easily could have qualified as a feminist. She not only was the first English woman to have a book published, was privately a radical Protestant in an England that had been staunchly Catholic, but also a sharply intelligent woman who had a head on her shoulders and was determined to keep it there.
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The new movie from Brazilian-Argentinian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz, Firebrand premiered in competition Sunday at the Cannes Film Festival. It is a surprising look at the Tudor period in England, surprising only because its focus is this woman who perhaps because she did manage to survive the terror of living with Henry; no one thought she was interesting enough to write a book or make a movie about. This all changed about 2012, when producer Gabrielle Tana optioned film rights to Elizabeth Fremantle’s Queen’s Gambit. And with a Brazilian-Argentinian director and a Oscar-winnng Swedish star, Alicia Vikander, as the “firebrand” in question, the movie manages to escape just being another dull costumer or history lesson, letting an outsider’s point of view creep into the otherwise very British conversation. Not only is Firebrand entertaining, it is also enlightening, finally giving Parr her due. OK, so it took nearly 500 years, but here we are.
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It is a film that also has a rollickling and rather amusing turn from an almost unrecognizable Jude Law as Henry VIII, with all the paunch and debauchery you might expect. Henry is back from fighting overseas with barely a leg to stand on, his dire condition on his right leg spreading throughout his body and causing unimaginable pain. As Katherine was named Regent in his absence, with some around him like Bishop Stephen Gardiner (a terrific Simon Russell Beale) suspicious that she might be teaming up with the nascent protestant uprising, he is none too happy and actually orders her good childhood friend and protestant activist Anne Askew (Erin Doherty) burned alive for making her beliefs loudly known — despite warnings from Katherine, who has to use a much more subtle approach to changing the Tudor world as it were.
The King is also at odds with the Seymours, brothers of his late third wife Jane Seymour. Prince Edward Seymour (Eddie Marsan) is far more conniving knowing he is the heir to the throne. Dashing Thomas Seymour (Sam Riley) is more of a romantic, and apparently in love with Katherine, something the king, a jealous sort he is, rages about, even suggesting that the child she is expecting may not be the king’s after all. There is all sorts of palace intrigue and conspiracy theories to go around, as Henry starts fading, often confined to bed, and Katherine, although performing her wifely duties, just doesn’t seem to have her heart in it.
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Far more accessible to those who might not be drawn to this kind of costumer, Firebrand is what its title suggests and is consistently engrossing. It also is a fine showcase again for the talents of Vikander, who has found in Katherine Parr a strong role model, and in a time of rising autocratic control something contemporary audiences might find relatable. Law is truly becoming the consummate character actor of his generation, and playing King Henry VIII just cements that status. He looks like he is having a blast, and steals every scene he is in. Beale, Riley, Marsan, Doherty and the rest of the large supporting cast are also very fine here. Michael O’Connor’s costumes, Helen Scott’s production design and Dickon Hinchliffe’s score all add to quality look of the film. Carolyn Mars Blackwood joins Tana as producer.
Festival: Cannes (Competition)
Director: Karim Aïnouz
Screenplay: Henrietta And Jessica Ashworth, with additional writing by Rosanne Flynn
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Jude Law, Simon Russell Beale, Eddie Marsan, Sam Riley, Erin Doherty
Running Time: 2 hr 0 min
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