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Review: Firebrand (2024)

Firebrand (2024)

Directed by: Karim Aïnouz

Premise: Based on the novel Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle. Katherine Parr (Alicia Vikander), the last wife of King Henry VIII, pushes for Protestantism in the United Kingdom. This puts her in the sights of Catholic figures who investigate Katherine for heresy.

What Works: Firebrand is set during the last days of King Henry VIII and the movie successfully merges a political thriller with a domestic abuse narrative. Katherine (Alicia Vikander) uses her role as queen to advance the Protestant cause and maneuvers herself and her step-children, namely Elizabeth I (Junia Rees), into positions of power. She also has a relationship with Anne Askew (Erin Doherty), a Protestant preacher who is wanted by the authorities. Firebrand has an overarching sense of paranoia. The conflict of the story occurs around the Reformation and the filmmakers turn the sixteenth century religious debate into a vibrant and real political conflict. The whole film has a naturalism in its design and performances that makes this historical moment come alive. However, the root of Firebrand is really the domestic story. Henry VIII, played with malevolence by Jude Law, is first and foremost an abusive husband and father. He’s erratic and violent and everyone has to be careful not to upset him. Firebrand merges the fear and paranoia of living with an abusive spouse with life under a dictator, especially one who rules by divine right. Henry’s behavior and the political volatility of the situation colors the entire movie and sets the stakes for Katherine’s activism. She is put in situations in which she has to take risks in order to advance her agenda and protect her step-children and Katherine’s willingness to do so defines her character. Firebrand is extremely well directed by Karim Aïnouz who shoots and assembles scenes in ways that draw out the subtext. In several moments the dialogue or the action is secondary; the filmmakers want us to notice Katherine or Elizabeth’s reactions and these moments are stagged effectively.

What Doesn’t: Firebrand takes significant liberties with the historical record. The filmmakers are upfront about that; Firebrand is based on a novel by Elizabeth Fremantle and it is prefaced by text that indicates this story is speculative fiction. Good dramatists generally prioritize good storytelling over the facts but that risks creating a distorted version of history and Firebrand probably exaggerates the conflict between the king and the queen as well as Katherine’s religious activism. She comes across as a contemporary feminist. That makes sense insofar as historical stories are usually intended to comment upon the present but Firebrand’s relevance to the contemporary world isn’t evident.

Bottom Line: There have been a lot of movies about Henry VIII and his wives but Firebrand brings a fresh approach to the material. This film is well made and has some strong performances and mixes the personal and the political very effectively.

Episode: #1002 (June 30, 2024)