THE STORY – In blood-soaked Tudor England, Catherine Parr, the sixth and last wife of King Henry VIII, is named Regent while tyrant Henry fights overseas. Catherine has done everything she can to push for a new future based on her radical Protestant beliefs. When an increasingly ailing and paranoid King returns, he turns his fury on the radicals, charging Catherine’s childhood friend with treason and burning her at the stake. Horrified and grieving but forced to deny it, Catherine finds herself fighting for her own survival.
THE CAST – Alicia Vikander, Jude Law, Erin Doherty, Eddie Marsan, Sam Riley & Simon Russell Beale
THE TEAM – Karim Aïnouz (Director), Jessica Ashworth & Henrietta Ashworth (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 120 Minutes
If you thought your relationship problems were tough, just be happy you weren’t married to King Henry VIII. The notorious English royal had six marriages, each seeming worse than the next. He wanted one annulled, got two women decapitated, and ended up being the most paranoid man toward the end. But, one woman outlived him and his reign of terror: Catherine Parr.
In director Karim Aïnouz’s “Firebrand,” King Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife gets to be at the center of her own story, which includes being a radical progressive not afraid to go against her king. With two stellar head-to-head performances from Alicia Vikander and a disgustingly unrecognizable Jude Law — who constantly makes viewers hold their breaths in fear — it’s a royal showcase that brings tension and courage to the screen.
Catherine Parr (Vikander) was remarkable in several ways. Among her accomplishments was that she was temporarily appointed regent while King Henry VIII (Law) was on a military campaign in France, which serves as the start of Aïnouz’s film. This appointment gave her an opportunity to exercise some control and spread protestant principles that were looked down upon by her husband. She even engages with the protestant preacher and radical Anne Askew (Erin Doherty), which, if seen by anyone, could possibly get the queen on the chopping block. After all, it’s not like the king hasn’t done that before. When the king returns and hears of Anne’s actions, she’s burned at the stake for treason, which sets Catherine off on walking a constant tightrope. Her husband, vile and despicable thanks to such a compelling performance by Law, grows increasingly paranoid of those around him. He has people test his food at all times, and his injured leg, which leaks puss frequently, makes him vulnerable to enemies. As a result, he is a living nightmare to deal with, and it makes Catherine feel like her life is in his hands any given day.
But, Aïnouz and Vikander never necessarily make Catherine out to be a helpless or hopeless woman. Even if Henry is much larger than her and holds all the power in the kingdom, she’s still cunning, knows precisely what to say to calm him down, and never backs down from protecting herself. Vikander’s poised and lively portrayal allows us to really feel for this woman and ultimately root for her against the unpredictably violent King. Even when the tide turns against her and others in the court try to take her down, Catherine still stands her ground.
Jessica and Henrietta Ashworth’s script makes the film accessible to modern audiences so that they don’t have to strain themselves much to understand old English, which seems to be a trend as of late. The writers do strangely leave out much of Catherine’s backstory, which includes being twice-widowed and having a previous romance with Thomas Seymour (Sam Riley). Their connection is seen sporadically on screen, which clearly makes Henry jealous, but it’s a mystery as to what actually happened between them. Some viewers also might not be pleased with how much the story strays from what really happened in real life, but it’s not the first film of its kind to deviate from history. From a costume and production design standpoint, the film nails the Tudor era in exquisite fashion.
“Firebrand” brings a dark modern lens to this royal story that will leave audiences with a shiver anytime Law lets his fury show. While the storytelling is not far removed from what would find in “The Tudors,” the performances take this film up a notch and make viewers want to root for its heroine. The story takes quite a bit of liberty with the truth, especially when it comes to Henry’s death, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, nor is it a reason to lose one’s head over.