Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Firebrand: The Story of Wife #6

Henry VIII was rather fickle in his affections. Just ask Thomas Cromwell, before Henry had him beheaded. That happened to two of his wives too. Old Cromwell never lived to see Henry’s final marriage to Katherine Parr, but she certainly takes his example, and those of her predecessors, to heart. Parr intends to keep her head on her shoulders and hopefully spur the Protestant Reformation further in Brazilian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz’s first English-language feature, Firebrand, which opens Friday in theaters.

Parr is not exactly happily married, but Henry VIII sort of left her in charge as regent while he was off, trying to lead his army. Unfortunately, his swollen, infected-looking leg ulcers forced him to return—and Parr must pretend to be happy to see him.

Of course, she isn’t. In fact, Henry’s return is rather ominous, especially considering his loyalists’ alarm regarding her “radical” Protestant inclinations. Rather rashly, she visited her “firebrand” evangelist friend Anne Askew. She even donated a necklace given to her by Henry to support her radical activism. Suddenly, she needs her allies to get it back. It is almost like the film turns into
The Three Musketeers Part I, but without the swashbuckling.

For the most part,
Firebrand unfolds like a decent BBC/PBS Masterpiece historical, once it finishes announcing its revisionist, feminist intentions. The history is hit or miss, but the intrigue is grabby. Aïnouz and screenwriters Henrietta & Jessica Ashworth fully capitalize on the historical ironies of Tudor history, culminating in the eventually ascension of the moderate-to-mildly progressive Elizabeth I.

Perhaps most memorably,
Firebrand presents Jude Law as you have never seen him before: a puss-leaking, flatulent bag of diseased flesh. There is absolutely nothing romantic about his portrayal of Henry VIII. Instead, he plays him like the sickliest Bond villain ever. The film is mostly just okay, but this is some of Law’s boldest work ever.

Frankly, Alicia Vikander pales in comparison. Of course, she is also stuck trying to breath life into Parr’s blandly impeccable virtuousness. It seems pretty clear Aïnouz prefers her to be a symbol rather than a flesh-and-blood person. Instead, her arch-enemy, anti-reformist Archbishop Stephen Gardiner, the reluctant Protestant, is far more interesting, especially considering how Simon Russell Beale digs into his deviousness with such relish.

Some subplots appear somewhat truncated, especially those involving Parr’s relationship with Thomas Seymour and his more Machiavellian brother Edward (played by the ever-reliable, but criminally under-utilized Eddie Marsan). Yet, the fraught marriage between Parr and Henry VIII at the center of the film is fascinating to watch, in all its dysfunctional glory. Recommended as a quick fix (just over two hours) for fans of costume dramas,
Firebrand opens Friday (6/14) at the AMC Empire.