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Firebrand: A Charming History Lesson in Tudor Intrigue
Image: Cannes

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Cannes 2023: Firebrand is a Charming History Lesson in Tudor Intrigue

Jude Law is magistral as huffing, obese Henry VIII

Firebrand Review

The second period drama about the consort of an iconic monarch at Cannes this year (after Jeanne Du Barry), Firebrand takes us to 16th century Tudor England where religious reformation is in full swing and Henry VIII’s sixth wife Catherine Parr (Alicia Vikander), a protestant religious zealot, is trying to maneuver her way around her ailing husband’s mood swings and survive palatial intrigues trying to off with her head. Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz ventures deep into Tudor England’s religious strife, a turbid period post-Catholisim pre-Protestantism, where Henry VIII (Jude Law) is trying to make up his mind to be or not to be Roman Catholic or Protestant. The viewer needs this sort of historical background in order to decipher the knife-edge court intrigues where one offhand word can mean life or death. 

Firebrand’s premise centres on an alt-historical interpretation of the last months of Catherine Parr and Henry’s marriage. We are not privy to the prehistory of this sixth royal union but it becomes clear early on in the film the Catherine is somewhat romantically involved with influential courtier Thomas Seymour (Sam Reiley), who also happens to be the uncle of her stepson, the future King Edward VI. Catherine, it transpires, has married the most womanising of British monarchs out of duty and possibly in fear of her life, but her true love is god and her deepest devotion is to the newly emerging reformed Church of England. The birth of the protestant church is bathed in the blood of beheaded heretics, dissenters burnt at the stake, all kinds of torture and lethal hearsay. 

Early on in the film, while acting as regent for Henry VIII who is fighting a war in France, and still in a relatively safe and powerful position, Catherine, impelled by her religious fervour visits her childhood friend turned fervent protestant preacher Anne Askew (Erin Doherty) in a forest a few hours’ horse ride away.  Anne Askew advocates plain language, i.e. preaching and reading the bible in English rather that Latin; at this point in history, King Henry has temporarily backtracked on English-language religion and his officials are busy re-enforcing Latin. As Henry is prematurely returning from his French campaign due to a ulcerous, there is a renewed hunt for reformist heretics. In the face of this clear and present danger, powered by her genuine belief in the reformation movement and sincere affection for her friend, Queen Catherine sneaks out of the rural castle wherein she is escaping the plague that is raging in London, and undertakes to warn Anne of the impending danger. To top it all Catherine gives Anne a precious necklace, a present from Henry VIII, so that Anne can finance her escape. 

From there on, a cat and mouse marital and courtly game begins, with obsequious courtiers trying to compromise Catherine, who is seen as too radical and too devoted to the new religion. King Henry is torn between his need to halt the spread of the protestant movement with which his wife is associated, and his desire for a spare male heir. Will Catherine outwit the ailing, obese king or will it be him who gets rid of her in the manner of several previous wives? The outcome is literally a life or death…

Opinion has been unanimous: while Alicia Vikander’s wholesome character wins a temporary reprieve by an alt-history interpretation in which she helps dispatch the death-bound Henry, it is Jude Law who raucously steals every single frame he is in. Repulsive, gangrenous, disintegrating, Law is unrecognizable in his prosthetic fat-suit, a blustering tyrant full of contradiction and charisma. In the 16th century, this stinking (literally because of his gangrenous leg) monarch still has absolute power and that power subsumes the royal household. There is no certainty for anybody in his entourage, possibly not even his children, future monarchs Elisabeth (Junia Rees) and Edward, who appear genuinely fond of their staunch stepmother. 

Fascinated by the historical character of Catherine Parr, Aïnouz chose to emphasise the  psychological thriller aspects of this royal matrimony and the suspense works well: there is indeed a knife-edge anticipation and the ominous elements of emotional and physical torture are ever-present. In one memorable scene, Henry, who has just blatantly flirted with a young female courtier, dismisses his food taster and orders the queen to taste the food instead. Humiliated yet proud, Catherine fully aware that she may be risking her life, retorts “It lacks salt”. This stubborn dignity seems to win back the king and Henry bursts into heavy-handed merriment, while the queen has yet again managed to repel the scheming clergy and courtiers. And so the love-hate rollercoaster ride of the royal marriage proceeds, the audience uncertain of which spouse will live and which die until virtually the end of the film. 

Of course, Alicia Vikander is reliably precise as the complex character of the demure yet scheming in her own right queen, overpowered by the boorish, lecherous, larger than life Law, probably in his best performance to date and the best Henry VIII incarnation in film. The choice of Aïnouz to direct is not an obvious one, and even though the director is extremely erudite, there is not much of Karim Aïnouz of A Vida Invisible in Firebrand. Nevertheless, the direction is faultless, albeit impersonal, and both leads, as well as the supporting cast, do an excellent job. Given more screen time and storyline, Jude Law most certainly would have gone home with a best actor award for his How to Play a Tyrant 101 master class; overall, Firebrand is a highly watchable, good-looking and edifying historical thriller. 

Zornitsa Staneva

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