Review: ‘Firebrand’

Alicia Vikander's Katherine Parr Challenges Jude Law's Grotesque Henry VIII In Edgy, Atypical Tudors Drama

It’s interesting that of the six wives of the mad King Henry VIII, Katherine Parr, the sixth and final of them all, is among the least to be written about, or to have her story adapted. She was, after all, the one to survive his cruel reign of terror, both as a ruler and a husband. Katherine survived with her head intact and her dignity only somewhat frayed, which can’t be said about those who came before her. In Firebrand, Brazilian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz imagines Katherine’s marriage to Henry as similar to being locked in a decrepit shack with a rabid beast. There’s no glory and even less glamour to being royalty in this historically fictional Tudor drama.

Firebrand is by no means a comedy, but Jude Law’s foaming-at-the-mouth performance as King Henry is pretty wild, all but stealing the film away from star Alicia Vikander. For her part, Vikander is poised and elegant as Katherine, who quietly pushes for religious freedom as her Protestant friends get torched at the stake by the King’s command. Katherine’s friendship with heretic preacher Anne Askew (Erin Doherty) has members of the court murmuring, and such whispers have been known to get people stretched, or worse. She relishes her brief rule as Queen regent while the King is away, but the air of menace looms like a dark cloud the moment he returns. Henry is jealous, violent, and chronically mercurial. He changes his mind at the drop of a feather, goes from poetic and jovial to spiteful and brutal without so much as a warning. He’s paranoid as Hell, and not without reason. The Seymours, Thomas (Sam Riley) and Edward (Eddie Marsan), brothers to the King’s deceased former wife Jane Seymour and uncle to his young son and heir, are hovering around like vultures. It doesn’t help that rumors persist that Katherine and Thomas are illicit lovers.

Aïnouz, who grew up in dictatorial Brazil of the 1960s, has no love for the monarchy and it shows. He paints a grim, ugly, dysfunctional picture of the Court, suggesting parallels with authoritarian regimes of today. Henry is a grotesque figure, comically selfish and brutish, his puss-spewing limbs casting a stink that causes his aides to cover their noses. Sex with him is humiliatingly grotesque, Katherine’s face a mixture of boredom, humiliation, and disgust. But she plays the game well, staying on his good side for the most part, but it is always a trepidatious thing. The fate of Katherine’s predecessors hangs heavy; Henry doesn’t even have to bother with threats.

It’s unfortunate that Katherine doesn’t get to take a more active role, given the “firebrand” label that teases her as some sort of feminist superhero. She is mostly kept in Henry’s thrall, and for good reason is only once seen giving as good as she gets. In that moment, Henry’s rage finally bubbles over, and Katherine retreats into subservience, where she can quietly manipulate from the shadow. Significant liberties taken with the facts will position her as equally ruthless as Henry, but Firebrand doesn’t show quite enough to justify it. The palace intrigue is thick and salacious, an entertaining Tudors horror in which Katherine Parr is the final girl doing whatever it takes to survive a monster.

Firebrand opens in theaters on June 14th.

Travis Hopson
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
firebrand-review-firebrandIt's interesting that of the six wives of the mad King Henry VIII, Katherine Parr, the sixth and final of them all, is among the least to be written about, or to have her story adapted. She was, after all, the one to survive...