FIREBRAND movie poster | ©2024 Roadside Attractions/Vertical

FIREBRAND movie poster | ©2024 Roadside Attractions/Vertical

Rating: R
Stars: Alicia Vikander, Jude Law, Eddie Marsan, Simon Russell Beale, Sam Riley, Erin Doherty, Patsy Ferran, Junia Rees, Patrick Buckley
Writers: Henrietta Ashworth & Jessica Ashworth, additional writing by Rosanne Flynn, based on the novel QUEEN’S GAMBIT by Elizabeth Fremantle
Director: Karim Aïnouz
Distributor: Roadside Attractions/Vertical
Release Date: June 14, 2024

FIREBRAND is an opulent drama set in the last years of English King Henry VIII’s (Jude Law) court. Years ago, it might have been big-studio Oscar bait; even now, it could have been a miniseries.

Based on Elizabeth Fremantle’s novel QUEEN’S GAMBIT (not to be confused with Walter Tevis’s chess-focused novel, THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT, which was adapted as a 2020 streaming miniseries starring Anya Taylor-Joy), FIREBRAND revolves around Henry’s last wife and queen.

The film begins with an onscreen observation that most histories are about men and wars, with the corollary being that histories about women aren’t told as often. The odds are admittedly good that audiences will know a lot more about Henry than his final spouse.

Henry’s second daughter, Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth (Junia Rees) sets the scene for us with a bit of voiceover narration. Katherine Parr (Alicia Vikander) is Henry’s sixth wife, the only mother Elizabeth and her little brother, Crown Prince Edward (Patrick Buckley), have ever known. (Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed when Elizabeth was a toddler, and Edward’s mother, Jane Seymour, died shortly after he was born due to complications from childbirth.) Katherine treats them and their older half-sister Mary (Patsy Ferran) as though they were her own children.

Henry is by now suffering from a number of physical complaints, including a ghastly wound in his leg (squeamish viewers should be prepared). However, his lust and desire for a second son are undimmed. Katherine is happy enough to oblige.

Katherine is far less happy about the state of Christianity in England, but dares not speak about this openly. She meets in secret with her friend Anne Askew (Erin Doherty), a lay preacher who talks to villagers about their right to read the Bible in a language they understand – that is, English – as opposed to the Latin spoken by the priests.

Further, Anne believes in the concept of praying to God directly, without the intercession of priests or other authority figures, and that the word of God is to always be prioritized above that of the King. None of this sits well with Henry, who has has set himself as the head of the relatively new Church of England.

With the Church burning heretics right and left, this puts Anne in immediate danger. As some suspect that Katherine is conspiring with the heretics, she’s in peril, too, especially given Henry’s extreme mood swings.

Director Karim Aïnouz makes the onscreen pageantry gorgeous. He also has a nice sense of period without making the material seem either archaic or overly modern.

There’s enough plotting and counterplotting and general espionage to qualify FIREBRAND as a thriller. As the evidence around Katherine mounts, we become increasingly invested in how she’s possibly going to get out of this.

Vikander projects conviction, intelligence and strategic shrewdness. Law brings together all of Henry’s diverse traits into a coherent portrait of the individual. Doherty has joyous certainty as Anne. Eddie Marsan as one of Edward’s uncles, jockeying for position at court, and Simon Russell Beale, as a calculating cardinal, are both impressive. As Elizabeth, Rees possesses an ethereal yet commanding quality that makes it wholly believable that she’ll be the monarch to bring a measure of order to her country.

FIREBRAND is based on a work of historical fiction. While she is an impressive figure in reality – she was one of the first women to publish books (of prayers) under her own name – for starters, the actual Catherine Parr spelled her first name with a “C,” though she signed private documents “Kateryn.” Bigger matters include characters taking actions that it seems like we’d have heard about had they really occurred. All of this is fine, as the film acknowledges that it is a work of imagination. The events have consistent internal logic.

However, given the amount of emphasis on religion in the screenplay by Henrietta Ashworth & Jessica Ashworth, it seems like a little more time ought to have been given to clarifying the state of Christianity at the time. Even if FIREBRAND is meant to be so reality-adjacent as to have its own spin on the Church of England, viewers coming in may be a little puzzled.

We do hear that Henry is the head of the Church, but since we still have cardinals, priests, and confessions, where are the Pope and Rome in all this? Henry famously broke with Rome in order to have his first marriage annulled so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, which led to the formation of the Church of England.

Additionally, Martin Luther is currently aggravating the Catholic Church with his protests (the origins of Protestantism) about the same issues that Anne Askew preaches. All of this affects both what is going on in England in terms of either allegiance to or rebellion against the throne, and how this is affecting England’s relationships with other countries.

This is important, not only narratively but psychologically to the characters. We don’t have to have whole plot threads, but a few lines of exposition about this would not have gone amiss.

Still, for fans of engaging Tudor-era storytelling, spying and spectacle, FIREBRAND is solid entertainment.

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