Alicia Vikander in Firebrand
ManOfTheCenturyMovie Film ‘Firebrand’ review: Alicia Vikander plays Henry VIII’s only surviving wife, with Jude Law as king

‘Firebrand’ review: Alicia Vikander plays Henry VIII’s only surviving wife, with Jude Law as king

Alicia Vikander in Firebrand

There have been numerous films about Henry VIII and how the English king’s various wives kept losing their minds, but precious few have focused on the one queen who managed to outlive him; Katherine Parr was a minor actress of the caliber of 1953’s “Young Bess” (as well as several films named after her murderous husband, and most recently the last season of Showtime’s “The Tudors”), but Karim Aïnouz’s “Firebrand” puts this radically progressive woman of the people at the center of history in a way never seen before.

Yet despite its righteous attempt to reframe history – an effort bolstered by the natural harshness of Alicia Vikander’s performance as a social activist who is trying to reshape her country without ruining her marriage to its tyrannical ruler – this bland drama epoch can’t help but feel like a familiar tale of court intrigue. Not even Jude Law, whose gripping and revoltingly belligerent portrayal of Henry VIII is equal parts Robert Shaw in “A Man for All Seasons” and Robert Baratheon in “Game of Thrones,” is enough to provide “Firebrand” its spark. missing. Aïnouz (“Invisible Life”) revisits Parr’s life with an unsanitized integrity that underscores the danger she has placed herself in on behalf of her people, and sometimes even follows her film’s directive to “draw (our) conclusions from what history won’t tell us,” but the claustrophobic silent film that leaves him rarely seems as radical as his royal highness.

However, it immediately feels raw and lived in. By the time “Firebrand” begins, Katherine has already managed to survive a few years of marriage to Henry VIII, and during that time she’s become a beloved mother figure to the various children the king’s other wives have left behind. She’s made key, if conditional, alliances with her stepson’s uncles (Eddie Marsan and Sam Riley as the richly bearded Seymour brothers), and has even felt comfortable enough in her rank to publish a devotional book in her own name, making her the first Englishwoman ever to do so. Outside the remote castle walls, the plague is raging and Protestant ideas seeking to disempower the Church of England are on the rise; within the musty fortress in which the vast majority of this film takes place, Katherine tries to avoid one of those things while she ignites the other.

Vikander’s equally rock-solid performances in period films like ‘Anna Karenina’ and ‘A Royal Affair’ could threaten to make her work feel a bit here been there, done that were it not for the well-defined vulnerability she brings to Katherine’s every move. In a pivotal scene in the first act that casts a long shadow over the rest of the film, Katherine musters the courage to shrug off the king’s bodyguards and sneak into an impassioned reformist lecture by her childhood friend Anne Askew ( Erin Doherty); when Anne dares her to help fund her cause, the otherwise intelligent Katherine trembles as she gives her former best friend one of Henry’s priceless amulets, a treasure that can only be traced back to her. Vikander cultivates that feminist tension between moral urgency and mortal danger from beginning to end, which allows “Firebrand” to remain somehow engagingly tense even as the nuances of Katherine’s religious struggle are lost in her struggle to remain in life.

That fight appears almost as Henry returns to England and pushes his way into the picture, his burly leg still oozing pus from a wound he sustained in a javelin contest some 10 years earlier. Very different from the dashing king he was a few wives ago, this Henry is a sallow, purulent reflection of the country he has kept in his image. Not only does he speak like Gollum, referring to himself as “us” because he has confused his identity with that of the crown and/or God, but his legs are like soggy tree trunks and his greasy fingers – always touching someone’s face – like sausages someone has left in the microwave for too long. A shot of his bare ass as he tries to stuff a spare heir into Katherine’s tummy is so unappetizing you almost forget which actor it belongs to.

As infuriating as it is that Law surely returned to his natural beauty as soon as filming wrapped (a superpower that continues to allow for his exquisite second life as a character actor), the sense of a god trapped in the body of a monster serves the menacing power of an unstable character whose terrible strength is masked by his physical weakness. Which doesn’t mean that anyone in court ever loses sight of Henry’s eagerness to behead anyone who opposes him.

By contrast, ‘Firebrand’ never feels more confident than he does in scenes where Henry presides over a party or some other social ‘amusement’, his mood swings projecting a palpable air of paranoia upon all in sight. It’s a familiar riff on mortal fear characterized by that episode of “The Twilight Zone” about the god-like boy (or, you know, by any authoritarian government throughout recorded history), but the grounded nature of Aïnouz’s film helps articulate how difficult it must have been for Katherine to sustain her hopes for the future in the face of such present peril. The earthy tones of Hélène Louvart’s typically expressive cinematography allow “Firebrand” to resist the false lust we’ve come to expect even from a Tudor-era period piece, while Michael O’Connor’s oppressive costumes – feathered fabric dungeons and encrusted with jewels – remind us that not even the riches of the royal family are enough to grant them true freedom from their king.

And yet, that organic style ages and dulls over the course of a film that consistently fails to wring compelling drama from its condition. Adapted from Elizabeth Fremantle’s book “The Queen’s Gambit” (apparently someone else got to that title first), Jessica and Henritta Ashworth’s screenplay is full of clever flourishes but struggles to show the old man “trying to give the king a baby so he doesn’t kill me” plot in a new light. After a point, the story is largely dictated by Henry’s gushing leg wound, while Katherine’s dream of spreading an English-language Bible that ordinary people she might actually be able to read—a dream so dear to her that she’s willing to risk her life for it—vanishes in an afterthought.

‘Firebrand’ often verbally references the courage Katherine surely required to carry out her royal duties with a straight face while harboring such radical ideas in secret, but little of the film itself reflects the courage of her convictions. Only in the final minutes of the story, when Aïnouz and her writers suddenly swap realism for revisionist history, does their film feel like a fitting tribute to a woman who insisted on making it on her terms.

Grade: C+

“Firebrand” premiered in competition at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.

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