‘Firebrand’ review: Karim Aïnouz doesn’t give much room for Alicia Vikander’s rebellious queen and Jude Law’s corpulent king to subvert expectation | Cannes
King Henry VIII’s last wife steps into the forefront in Firebrand, Karim Aïnouz’s English-language debut. Alicia Vikander stars as the quietly rebellious Catherine Parr, Queen consort of England and Ireland, aided by a repugnantly brilliant Jude Law as the famed King Henry VIII. Firebrand largely adheres to conventional costume dramas, following the many tropes of films past, and makes for a straightforward watch that lacks much of a spark.
During King Henry VIII’s (Jude Law) last military campaign in France in 1544, Catherine (Alicia Vikander) is appointed Regent while the King is abroad. Tasting the power that comes with being Queen, Catherine makes some risky moves that eventually come back to haunt her. As Henry returns alive but not so well, his leg is dangerously infected, he quickly becomes less and less rational. Known for his foul treatment of his ex-wives, who he had killed or exiled, people around Catherine become increasingly fearful for her life as rumours of her dealings with an anti-royal protestor surface.
Catherine is relieved to find out that she is supposedly pregnant after eight weeks of no blood; she believes this could be what sets her apart from Henry’s ex-wives as he quickly approaches death. Even while blabbing nonsense and losing his grip on reality, King Henry VIII and his disciples monitor Catherine’s every move as they search for a reason to execute her, it becomes a witch hunt aided by all loyal to the king and those worried about their standing in the kingdom.
Jude Law is seriously disturbing as the grotesque and evil King Henry VIII; fully immersed as the garish and detested monarch, delivering plenty of vile moments as he attempts to get under his sixth wife’s skin. He is unnervingly brilliant. Alicia Vikander, meanwhile, plays the Queen Consort with a quiet, yet unruly demeanor as her character believes she could make a difference if given the power that Henry holds. Vikander begins on a rebellious note, but it swiftly becomes a very safe performance until the very end, but by that point it’s already too late to win over the spectator.
Aïnouz wants to unravel the legacy of King Henry VIII’s final wife and the costume drama as a whole, but the film’s subversiveness isn’t pushed far enough. We’ve seen great, incendiary takes on historical dramas (whether based on reality or not) in recent years like Emma that successfully manage to deconstruct the absurdities of the past and give power to those with little. But Firebrand fails to achieve anything more than shining a spotlight on Henry’s last surviving wife; we are still forced to watch endless abusive scenes as Catherine panders to her husband’s last surviving strands of good will. It’s a shame because it’s clear to see Aïnouz’s intent, but his story’s bold revisionist qualities hide behind a safe costume drama.
Shot like a Rembrandt painting, Hélène Louvart’s cinematography is a thing of beauty. Every frame that Vikander is the focus of is often lusciously lit and perfectly framed, which is a vast contrast to when Law’s awful king is the subject. Louvart’s images depict the King as an acrimonious, vile person by subjecting him to dirtier, less-composed frames to emphasise just how disheveled he is. The mise-en-scene becomes a prison for Catherine, almost as if she were trapped in a historical 16th/17th century painting, everything feels claustrophobic as she tries to best Henry VIII and those who protect him.
Ultimately, even though the audience roots for Catherine to be rid of the vile king, there is not enough subversiveness to break the bounds of being a conventional costume drama. At its core, Firebrand is a film about the gross abuse of those with extreme power and how gluttony absorbs and corrupts people. King Henry VIII is the most obvious historical example of this, so it’s nice to get an insight into his last surviving wife rather than continuing to hear about those killed by England and Ireland’s worst and most vile king in history.
This review is from the 2023 Cannes Film Festival where Firebrand premiered in competition. The film will be released in the U.S. by Amazon Studios/MGM/UAR.