Everyone knows Henry VIII had six wives — but as far as filmmakers are concerned, it’s wife No. 2, Anne Boleyn, who has always been the main attraction. Still, cinema and television’s obsession with the Tudors is so intense that wife No. 6 had to have her turn on screen eventually, and so she does in “Firebrand,” a slow-burning drama directed by Karim Ainouz starring Alicia Vikander as Catherine Parr, the woman who was stuck with Henry during his oldest, fattest, sickest and maddest final years.
Adapted from Elizabeth Fremantle’s novel, “Queen’s Gambit” (clearly, they had to change the title), “Firebrand” tries to present Catherine not as the pious nursemaid from primary school history lessons, but as a rebellious reformer who struggled to save England from tyranny. It almost succeeds.
In the opening scenes of the film, which premiered on Sunday in the Main Competition at the Cannes Film Festival, Henry (Jude Law) is away in France with his army and Catherine takes the opportunity to ride off to a mossy forest for secret meetings with Anne Askew (Erin Doherty), a childhood friend who is now preaching revolt against a new law that has banned English-language Bibles and returned authority to Latin-reading priests.
Compared to her radical friend, Catherine appears to be a cowed, abused wife. “He’s changed,” she tells Anne. “I’ve lasted longer than any of his wives since his first.” As pathetic as this special pleading might sound, Catherine is bold enough to give Anne a jewelled necklace to help fund her campaigning, and she informs the privy council that she wants to look into the publication of English-language Bibles once again. Respected in court and adored by her various stepchildren, she is definitely doing better than her five predecessors.
But then Henry returns earlier than expected from France, whereupon Catherine’s status plummets and Law steals the show. He is hardly obese enough for the role, but he is horribly scary and funny as a cruel, paranoid despot who loves to be seen as a rollicking bon viveur while cheerily belittling everyone around him. With an oozing, infected leg wound that sometimes has him screaming in agony or frothing in fury, Henry is a charismatic yet repulsive creation. When he grunts and groans on top of Catherine in bed, it’s less erotic than you might imagine any sex scene featuring Alicia Vikander and Jude Law could possibly be.
Neither Catherine or any of the other courtiers can escape from his mood swings. With the plague sweeping through London, the royal retinue has moved to a castle in the countryside (the film was shot on location in Haddon Hall in Derbyshire), so there are no crowd scenes or any of the sub-genre’s usual spectacular pomp and pageantry. All of the action is crammed into a few overcrowded rooms and corridors where there is always someone around to overhear whispered conversations.
The political becomes intimately personal. The Seymour brothers (Eddie Marsan and Sam Riley, with beards big enough to require their own trailers) are friends of the Queen, but only up to a point. They are the uncles of the king’s son by Jane Seymour (wife No. 3), so they don’t want Catherine to have any more influence than he does.
The smug Bishop Gardiner (Simon Russell-Beale), meanwhile, gets his kicks by burning heretics – and Catherine, who dares to compose her own prayers, is next on his list. And why not, he asks Henry. It’s not as if he hasn’t had any of his wives executed before. Henry and Jessica Ashworth’s severely intelligent, literary screenplay makes the relationships in “Succession” seem healthy in comparison.
Not that “Firebrand” is influenced by today’s television. It’s fashionable now for royal historical dramas to be strenuously modern and indeed postmodern, with their employment of pop songs, snazzy outfits and colorblind casting, whereas “Firebrand” manages to be just as innovative by going as far as possible in the opposite direction. Never has a film set in the 16th-century looked more convincing. Ainouz and his team achieve such authenticity with their richly colored fabrics and candle-lit interiors (shot by Helene Louvart) that it’s like a Holbein painting brought to life.
Strangely, the most conventional aspect of “Firebrand” is its central character. She is established as being clever, determined and forward-thinking, but after those initial liaisons with Anne Askew, she has no more agency than the queens in any other Tudor drama. Unlike the men around her, she doesn’t do any conspiring or maneuvering. In fact, she doesn’t do anything except praying, tending to the King and his stepchildren, and hoping she might have a child of her own.
Vikander seems slightly lost, and the script fails to make its case that Catherine was a proto-feminist revolutionary who inspired her stepdaughter Elizabeth to be the queen she would become.
As impressive as the film is, then, it could have done with being heated up by a fierier firebrand.