Even if Jude Law’s somewhat ruggedly attractive voice doesn’t always lend itself to Henry VIII’s psychotic bellows of paranoia, his performance as perhaps the most infamous monarch of all time is impassioned and frightening. Embodying an ailing, obese king, whose position is becoming increasingly untenable in the face of heretical reformists and a plummeting reputation abroad, Law hobbles and waddles through Helen Scott’s magnificently detailed set design with increasing mania, as a horrifically infected leg wound threatens his life.
Jessica and Henrietta Ashworth’s screenplay, helmed coldly and broodingly by Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz, reads as a taut political thriller, with all the seedy, juicy machinations and paranoia the genre should deliver. It’s a tightly wound, astute piece of screenwriting that orients Henry VIII’s final months in the context of a changing England. Copies of the Bible written in English have been banned by the king, who understands all too well that knowledge is power. A spark has been ignited, and the monarch’s autonomy over his subjects is slipping. Aïnouz takes us down into Henry’s escalating madness in a way that swells to a point that is surprisingly claustrophobic.
However, it seems that the film’s otherwise focused screenplay loses sight of its priorities. A prologue introduces Alicia Vikander’s Catherine Parr, Henry’s sixth wife, as a queen regent who is receptive to this air of change. A close friend of revolutionary thinker Anne Askew, she pushes for English copies of the Bible to be published and distributed throughout the land, and scolds her husband for burning Askew at the stake – an action that elicits the narrative’s first glimpse of Henry’s sinister ire. It promises a unique take on the story of Henry VIII’s downfall from a revisionist, feminist perspective, but that promise falls by the wayside as the stakes rise and Law’s grotesque performance takes precedence. The film lacks a route into Catherine’s character that may have better anchored its strengths (including a magnificent supporting cast consisting of the likes of Sam Riley and Eddie Marsan as the late Jane Seymour’s brothers, and Simon Russell Beale as Stephen Gardiner) to an emotional nucleus. We do see her scramble for survival in the face of falling out of her husband’s favour, but we see its processes rather than its bare emotional truth.
What could have been a tense, enticing regal thriller with a distinctively modernist twist is instead simply a tense, enticing regal thriller that is far from a tragic state of affairs.
Firebrand does not have a UK release date yet.
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