“An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,” Percy Shelley once wrote in his sonnet England in 1819. He was firing his barbs at King George III but the words could just as well be used for any number of English monarchs including Henry VIII, the Tudor head of state who, more than anyone perhaps, embodies (quite literally) the bloated expression of British kingship.
Henry’s entrance is delayed in Karim Aïnouz’s Firebrand, an adaptation of Elizabeth Fremantle’s novel The Queen’s Gambit, as the focus settles on his sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr (Alicia Vikander). Catherine is an intellectual who composes her own prayers and even publishes them under her own name. Despite her nominal power, she is surrounded by intrigue at court and her own sympathies are with the radical Protestants who preach in the woods and call the power of the church into question: and with it the power of God’s deputy, the king.
When Jude Law’s Henry finally rocks up, it’s with a leg so gammy it occasionally leaks in puddles on the floor. His return from the wars is not a happy one. Aside from the pain of his gangrenous wound, he’s also beginning to tire of Catherine. Paranoid about plots and unhappy to not have an heir, her childlessness is in no way mitigated by the love she bestows on his other children, including the young Mary and Elizabeth. There’s also something of divine madness to the man as, maddened by pain, he refers to himself by a royal “We” rich in schizophrenic undertones. The whole court, trapped in a castle outside of London due to the plague, watch on nervously as the king tries to determine on who to settle the regency in the case of his imminent death.
Vikander is more poise than character and struggles to imbue Catherine with an anachronistic attitude, both well-meaning and wrong-headed. Looking to royal figures to solve problems of injustice and unfairness is like hoping that a tech billionaire will run a social media platform fairly. And the fact – as a title card states before the action begins – that women have been effectively written out of history seems a poor excuse to just make up any old nonsense. Unable to manoeuvre, Vikander’s Catherine is limited to little more than praying and stoicism. Meanwhile, Law gets to eat the scenery as if it was just so many capons. He’s having fun and gives some genuine menace to the role. Followed by a coterie of yes men, Henry snarls and gripes, yet is occasionally tender. His court flinches and capers at his whim. In one of the best scenes, they all join in a sing-a-long almost psychotic in its forced merriness.
Aïnouz has eschewed the post-modern fun of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite for a much grimmer, darker vibe. This is the kind of film where torches most definitely gutter and men call out directives “on the orders of the king!” But for all the weighty gravitas of Simon Russell Beale as a conniving bishop and Eddie Marsan as a conniving noble bring to bear, the story never takes the history seriously enough either. There’s no genuine grasp of the otherness of the past, beyond the costume and the facial topiary (there’s also one ZZ Top spectacular). Religious persecution, manifest and systemic injustice, arbitrary male violence and abuse can all be resolved by parachuting a modern day heroine into the scene who has apparently escaped the muck of the ages.
The 76th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 16-27 May. Follow our coverage here.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty