Cannes 2023 Review: "Firebrand"
Alicia Vikander and Jude Law go full Tudor in wildly inaccurate historical drama as Karim Aïnouz's period drama dismisses the history books.
In “Firebrand”, a revisionist royal portrait of Henry VIII’s last wife, Katherine Parr, that features all the pageantry you’d expect from a lavish costume drama while showing the ahistorical audacity to call “Time’s Up” on the gluttonous king. Never mind that Henry VIII died — of very different causes than the movie depicts — all of 476 years ago. When it comes to art, there is no statute of limitations on taking toxic masculinity to task, which can be both encouraging (since history has excused no shortage of monsters) and frustrating. Most movies about England’s King Henry VIII like to focus on the mercurial monarch’s failed marriages. His six wives each ‘left’ the marriage with the following descriptions: divorced, died, beheaded, divorced, beheaded, and survived. That last one, the little talked-about Katherine Parr, had the distinction of outlasting Henry — their marriage was about four years in when he started to succumb to the results of his gluttonous living. She was a woman of her time, but also a wife who, if she weren’t so connected to the King, easily could have qualified as a feminist. Parr was not only the first English woman to have a book published, but she was also a radical Protestant (privately) in a staunchly Catholic England, and also a sharply intelligent woman who had a head on her shoulders and was determined to keep it there.
In the recounting of her story, however, there’s a big difference between exposing the truth and rewriting what came before to suit a contemporary feminist political agenda, the way “Firebrand” does. Liberally adapted from Elizabeth Fremantle’s fast-and-loose historical fiction “The Queen’s Gambit,” this new movie from Brazilian-Algerian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
It is a surprising look at the Tudor period in England, ‘surprising’ only because it is the first to focus on this rather ignored woman who managed to survive the terror of living with King Henry VIII. Perhaps no one thought she was interesting enough to write a book or make a movie about, but this all changed in 2012 when producer Gabrielle Tana optioned film rights to Fremantle’s “Queen’s Gambit”. This British production needn’t try hard to demonstrate that Henry was a notoriously bad husband, but with a Brazilian-Algerian director and an Oscar-winning Swedish star, Alicia Vikander, as the “firebrand” in question, the movie barely escapes being another dull history lesson, letting an outsider’s point of view creep into an otherwise very British conversation.
That being said, “Firebrand” is not only entertaining, but it is also enlightening, finally giving Parr her due. OK, so it took nearly 500 years, but here we are.
Far from any fairy tale, Aïnouz’s film begins not “once upon a time” but “in a blood-soaked and rotten kingdom” where “history tells us a few things, mostly about men and war.” In its corrective fashion, this handsome-looking film does a fine job of reclaiming Parr’s real-life achievements: She was a learned woman, who published several books and advocated for the education of women, introducing Protestant ideas to patriarchal England and paving the way for her stepdaughter Elizabeth to become queen. A whole crop of recent projects about the British monarchy — and especially Princess Diana — has tried to reshape the public’s understanding of the outdated institution, but in the year 1546, when “Firebrand” takes place, the king was still perceived as a divine figure. Henry had broken with the Roman Catholic Church over its refusal to grant an annulment of his first marriage. Now he and his religious advisers worried that Protestant reformers might undermine the entire system. They weren’t wrong, and “Firebrand” is clever to reframe Katherine as an important figure in England’s change. It just goes too far.
While it is true that there are accounts of Henry VIII slowly descending into some sort of madness toward the end of his life (potentially because of syphilis), “Firebrand” is determined to show us endless shots of Jude Law in a ridiculous fat suit screaming and throwing a fit like a little child. To Law's credit, he fully leans in to a character that is more in line with Joffrey Baratheon than any historical figure. He doesn't hesitate to turn into a mercurial man who is as fickle as he is childish. Law is truly becoming the most talented 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. While Alicia Vikander barely stands there reciting lines. Fortunately, Beale, Riley, Marsan, Doherty and the rest of the large supporting cast are doing a very fine job here.
A visual feast
As casual as “Firebrand” is with the facts, one thing can't be denied: this is Aïnouz's luscious England. Through his eyes, every scene feels like a painting plucked out of the archives of the Dutch masters. Flawless and period-accurate costuming comes in rich jewel tones, and the actors are bathed in soft golden light within their dark, wood-panelled rooms. I don't blame Aïnouz for lingering long on such scenes. The film is at its best when we can watch the subject uninterrupted and admire just how much work was put into the lovely costume and production design. Michael O’Connor’s costumes, Helen Scott’s production design and Dickon Hinchliffe’s score all add to the quality look of the film. However, Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth’s script oddly leaves out key information, such as how, in marrying Katherine, Henry interrupted a blossoming love story between Thomas Seymour (Sam Riley) and the two-time widow. The king appears jealous of Thomas, but the backstory — so central to Fremantle’s novel — is missing. Thomas’ older brother Edward (Eddie Marsan) comes across as more strategic, but Aïnouz seems more interested in showcasing Michael O’Connor’s costumes than in clarifying the mechanics of such arcane allegiances.
After a supposed pregnancy and several other creative liberties, the movie springs its most egregious invention, placing Katherine at the ailing king’s bedside. The scene is pure fantasy, rewriting Parr’s feminist legacy with flagrant disregard for the facts. Historically speaking, people have been beheaded for lesser heresies.
4/5: Entertaining, but completely inaccurate.