The dual meaning of the word ‘firebrand’ – a champion of radical change and a piece of burning wood – overlap nicely in this conventional but compelling snapshot of the life of Katherine Parr (Alicia Vikander), the sixth and final wife of Henry VIII. Infused with a modernity that’s all the rage in revisionist period dramas, her progressive streak and nuggety courage will either see her bringing Protestantism to the land or strapped to a stake and warming the courtyard of Hampton Court.
Anyone who paid attention in history class will know all about Henry VIII – heir-questing misogynist, monastery dissolver, lobber of chicken bones – but Parr is a mere footnote in the history of the period. That allows Brazilian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz (Futuro Beach) to paint a portrait on a blank canvas, giving us a woman who consorts with ‘heretics’, schemes with political players and generally sticks two fingers up to her impetuous and highly dangerous husband.
What emerges is a taut historical thriller, bathed in muted, Rembrant-esque lighting (props to cinematographer Hélène Louvart) and filled with viperish conspiracies and courtly colour. It’s hampered by a pedestrian script and an improbable ending, but always catches fire when the supercharged Law is on screen.
That’s a weakness as well as a strength, with the actor’s raucous Henry overwhelming Vikander’s more measured performance as the story’s feminist heroine. Snuffling, grunting and boarish – and that’s just his lovemaking – this Harry is a man with no time for niceties. Shaking off the last vestiges of boyishness, Law essays a petulant, paranoid monarch whose suppurating leg wound will inevitably kill him and creates a tense bunker mentality in his court that give it the feeling of a Tudor version of Downfall. One shot of his flabby buttocks represents an even more haunting meme-able moment.
The supporting cast boasts dependably ace period mainstay Simon Russell Beale as the Catholic churchman slowly turning Henry against his wife, Eddie Marsan as a covert Protestant agitator, and Sam Riley popping up in as an old Parr flame, wearing a beard surely fished from the costume department’s ‘silly disguises’ cupboard. Erin Doherty delivers meaningful looks as a young Elizabeth left marooned in the middle of it all.
Based on Elizabeth Fremantle’s 2013 novel ‘Queen’s Gambit: A Novel of Katherine Parr’ and adapted by Killing Eve writers Jessica and Henrietta Ashworth, Firebrand works pretty well as a political potboiler with the brooding undercurrents of Wolf Hall, if not as much of the sophistication. Jude Law, though, is a beefy, full-bore highlight.
Firebrand premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.