Alicia Vikander and Jude Law in Tense Royal Thriller – The Hollywood Reporter
Early in the suspenseful historical drama of Karim Ainouz, FirebrandHis sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr, was commended by King Henry VIII for her excellent job serving as Regent while he was engaged in the war abroad. No matter the efforts to limit her powers to unimportant matters, tell her she won’t have to worry about her “pretty little head” about it all anymore. The threat that self-thinking women pose to the absolute power of men is a central theme in this starchless tale of Tudor plot, its primal feminist perspective woven seamlessly into the fabric of the narrative without a hint of didacticism.
Brazilian director Unuz has been making hypnotically sensual films full of swanky melancholy for more than 20 years, among them beguiling dramas like Madame SataAnd Silver cliff and the criminally underappreciated gem hidden life (seriously, check it out, you’ll thank me), plus several feature documentaries.
He rescues an inspiring woman from the margins of history.
His English-language debut, an adaptation of Elizabeth Fremantle’s acclaimed novel Queen’s maneuver Created by screenwriters Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth, it’s something of an Onoz exit into the realm of grittier period dramas. but FirebrandThough immersed in the grit and melancholy of the atmosphere of a country stricken with plague and under tyrannical rule, it is alive with a strong contemporary attitude. It steers away from the usual anachronistic gimmicks (save for the delightful deployment of a PJ Harvey banger over the end credits), instead infusing its own modernity and reflections on gender inequality and marital abuse in more subtle ways.
In many ways, it is a spiritual introduction Elizabeththe brilliant 1998 bio-drama that propelled Cate Blanchett onto the map, even if there were two between Henry VIII and the Virgin Queen – she’s portrayed here as a keenly observant young woman by brilliant newcomer Junia Reese, who gets a stunning final shot.
Like Blanchett’s movie, Firebrand It offers a terrific leading role for the actress to bite into, which Alicia Vikander does with gusto, but also with the restraint and watchful self-possession of a woman who is well aware that it didn’t always end well for her predecessors in Henry’s bed. It is her best work since then machine ex.
As for the ailing King, whose swollen legs ache, blister with gout and ooze blood and pus, Jude Law is fearfully mercurial. Cheerful one minute and dangerous the next, Henry is a man whose body fails him, festering completely with poison. He either walks off the top of Katherine like a rowdy mass or views her side by side with suspicions of betrayal. My two favorite words seem to be “shut up!”
Perhaps most impressive about Law’s layered performance is the evidence beneath Henry’s cruelty that he truly loves Katherine enough to pray that she will not turn into like the others, all of whom he believes have failed or betrayed him. His anger was fearful when he attacked the Lord for his examination, and foaming at his mouth with his pragmatic manner of sending unfit wives: “We cut them off!”
Barely mobile, however, Henry’s chief displeasure was his discontent with the growing following of Protestant radicals who longed for a revolution that would allow them to worship God over the king. One such extremist faction is led by Katherine’s childhood friend, Anne Askew (Erin Doherty), whose fiery passion for the cause has him on the wanted list for treason. Catherine’s visit to Anne at a shrine during Henry’s absence endangers her, as does a later meeting where she gives Anne a valuable necklace she had 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 constant whispers in his ear from the staunchly anti-Protestant Bishop Stephen Gardiner (played by the witty Simon Russell Peale with a sinister Machiavellian aim). Aware that Henry’s days are numbered and eager to organize the succession in his way, he steadily increases his efforts to incriminate Catherine for treason.
The bishop’s determination to prove her connection to Anne Askew involves questioning the guards and her ladies-in-waiting, who remain unflinchingly loyal despite threats of execution. Gardiner also leans heavily on Edward Seymour (Eddie Marsan), the would-be future king’s uncle, to provide evidence of Katherine’s extramarital affair with his brother Thomas (Sam Reilly). But Katherine is too smart to risk infidelity, though the two remain close.
Anyone familiar with which of Henry’s wives died, was ousted, or survived knows the outcome for Katherine, which makes it surprising how skillfully the filmmakers build intense tension around her fate. This comes with a great deal of help from Dickon Hinchliffe’s brooding symphonic score, its range and power expertly modulated throughout. The last days of Henry’s life become a period of terror for Katherine, and the course of her action is perhaps one of the author’s most important—and stunningly effective—turns in speculative fiction.
In most old royal con dramas, the intrinsically good character is the least interesting. That’s not the case at all here with Vikander’s Katherine, an enlightened woman who’s all about quiet control. Still steadfast in her idealistic beliefs despite the rot that surrounds her, she mostly keeps to her own counsel and is brave enough to risk dishonoring the King if it means having her dignity stripped away after one of his routine public insults.
In some ways, the film’s title is a misnomer in that it’s no one’s traditional idea of a hooligan, but the certainty of its commitment is palpable even under the worst of compulsions. Not overemphasizing the character’s uncompromising bravery, Vikander also conveys genuine fear, along with Katherine’s determination, her agony excruciating in a scene where the potential lifeline of handing Henry a son slips from her grasp.
There are lovely moments of solidarity between the women – young Elizabeth and Catherine’s servant – that feed into the thematic foundation of women fleeing the brutality of men and war, as well as being able to forge ways in the light, more open and forgiving. The very existence of this film, Aïnouz points out, is a reminder of how much history has generally focused more on dead women than survivors.
The consistently entertaining storytelling is matched by sumptuous, often painterly, visuals, with cinematographer Helen Lowart’s rigging creating the illusion of using only natural light in interiors from candles, fireplaces, or windows. The production and costume design (Helen Scott and Michael O’Connor, respectively) are also top notch, from high-born characters in their elegant looks to radicals in their rags. For fans of historical dramas that are gritty and lively, this drama is very much worth your time.