Our Review

Jeanne: Bolstered by splendid performances from Alicia Vikander and Jude Law, director Karim Aïnouz’s period piece, FIREBRAND, is a fascinating depiction of Katherine Parr (Vikander), the sixth and last wife of King Henry VIII (Law). Though there is much content regarding Henry and his barbaric treatment of his previous wives, little has been put forth about Katherine.


Based on the novel “The Queen’s Gambit” by Elizabeth Fremantle, with a screenplay by Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth, FIREBRAND begins with Henry fighting battles outside of England while Katherine must deal with the plague at home. Henry has named his queen Regent in his absence, a position not everyone in his court is thrilled she holds.


She visits an old childhood friend, Anne Askew (Erin Doherty), who preaches her Protestant beliefs despite being outlawed for doing so. Katherine shares her commitment to change, but to protect herself, she cannot be as vocal as Anne. She is always under scrutiny, especially by Bishop Stephen Gardiner (Simon Russell Beale), who is convinced Katherine is a heretic.


Upon Henry’s return, things become even more dangerous for Katherine. Henry is suffering from a disastrous leg wound which leaves him nearly incapacitated. In constant discomfort and now paranoid about everyone around him, Henry lashes out at Katherine, threatening to do away with her like he has done with the previous five queens. It’s only a matter of time, according to Henry’s doctor, and he’ll be dead, but can Katheirne hang on that long?

Vikander and Law bring this ill-fated couple together beautifully. It’s not difficult to imagine that Katherine and Henry may have loved one another at some point in their relationship. But now Henry has been wounded by rumors surrounding Katherine and a possible affair with Thomas Seymour played by Sam Riley.


Thomas does love Katherine, but she has remained faithful to Henry. When she becomes pregnant, at first Henry is thrilled, but then the small voices around him try to convince him her baby is not his. And when pushed to condemn Katherine, neither Thomas nor his brother, Edward Seymour (Eddie Marsan), a longtime friend of hers, do nothing to protect Katherine. In fact, it is Thomas who provides the biggest piece of evidence against her. Typical men --- cowards, but I digress.


Vikander’s portrayal of Katherine is quiet and understated. She uses her facial expressions to keep her inner thoughts hidden, but her determination to give strength and valor to Katherine is marvelous. Law, on the other hand, plays Henry as the menacing tyrant he was known to be. Aïnouz creates FIREBRAND as a psychological thriller, with Henry a ticking time bomb and each scene is awash in the fear he will explode at any minute.


Such a gifted cast deserves a brilliant location and it was decided to film the entire story on location at Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, making it another character in FIREBRAND. It and the surrounding countryside are exquisitely filmed by French cinematographer Hélène Louvart. Add to this the gorgeous costumes, with specific attention to details from that era, by Michael O’Connor, and FIREBRAND has all the components of a masterfully done period piece.


Opinion: See It Now!

David: Most American school kids have at least a working knowledge of the thug that was Henry VIII. Six wives, two of whom lost their heads, is a legacy even they can retain.


Brazilian-Algerian director Karim Aïnouz was hired to helm FIREBRAND precisely because he was lacking in Tudor history, Henry VIII included. Screenwriters Jessica and Henrietta Ashworth --- who happen to be sisters --- agreed with the choice, and the impressive cast assembled brings their screenplay to life.


Starring Jude Law as the infamous British monarch, and Alicia Vikander as his sixth and last wife, Katheirne Parr, FIREBRAND is hardly what one would call a joy to watch. Based on the novel by Elizabeth Fremantle entitled “The Queen’s Gambit” --- no relation to the hit TV series “The Queen’s Gambit” starring Anya Taylor-Joy --- the movie inserts the viewer into the final months of Henry’s life, afflicted by a variety of ailments, some related to his obesity.


But the real focus is on Katherine Parr who tiptoes around her true religious beliefs --- not in line with Britain’s Church of England traditions, but a supporter of The Reformation which began when Katherine was five years old. Named Regent of England while Henry was away fighting a war, and ultimately queen of England and Ireland, Katherine risked being beheaded herself if Henry didn’t care for her religious views, and that sustains the film’s suspense.


In the opening scenes we see Katherine’s childhood friend Anne Askew, now an adult, and ably portrayed by Erin Doherty, addressing a small, secluded crowd of believers in the Protestant movement. In fact, Katherine penned an English version of the Protestant ideology --- it was her desire to have this printed in English so that everyone in Britain could understand it.


Vikander actually read Katherine’s writing in preparation for her role. There are some criticisms of Vikander’s performance as too low key, but the reality is that Katherine had to maintain a certain understated persona in order to survive. And Vikander accomplishes that quite well.


Law is his usual superb self as Henry VIII. It is Henry’s short fuse that makes Law’s portrayal so frightening. With all the physical problems for a man in his 50s, it is not hard to realize why Henry lashes out at everyone.


Eddie Marsan plays Edward Seymour, brother to Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour. Sam Riley portrays Jane’s other brother Thomas who happens to be in love with Katherine. But in the end, he capitulates to threats of bodily harm and supplies the condemning evidence needed to imprison Katherine.


Aïnouz has created somewhat of a mystery in the last moments of FIREBRAND. What really happened between Katherine and Henry --- we may never know, but the director has given us fodder for discussion.


Opinion:  Mild See It Now!