The wife who survived Henry VIII finally gets her big-screen due

Firebrand, which is based on Elizabeth Freemantle’s novel Queen’s Gambit and opened Friday, is set during Henry’s final months, in 1546-47.
Last Updated : 16 June 2024, 09:53 IST

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Midway through Karim Aïnouz’s Firebrand, King Henry VIII of England takes a break from playing bowls on the lawn to walk with his sixth wife, Katherine Parr. Gripping her arm tightly, limping heavily, the king, played with terrifying menace by Jude Law, offers a threat to those who betray him. “They know what would happen,” he says quietly, turning to face the queen. “We’d have to have their head cut off.” Alicia Vikander’s Queen Katherine smiles faintly. “I’m sure you would come up with something much more creative,” she says.

Firebrand, which is based on Elizabeth Freemantle’s novel Queen’s Gambit and opened Friday, is set during Henry’s final months, in 1546-47. Katherine is trying to keep her head on her shoulders while the king, ill, paranoid and angry, grows suspicious of her alliance with religious reformers. Egged on by the poison-drip whisperings of the power-hungry bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner (Simon Russell Beale), who fears Katherine’s progressive leanings, a witch hunt begins in an effort to convict her of heresy and treason.

“I thought of it as a thriller,” Aïnouz, 58, said by phone last month from the Cannes Film Festival, where his movie “Motel Destino” was in competition. “There are so many stories about the wives who perished under Henry. Katherine was older, politically astute, intellectual, rebellious. She survived. And yet there were no movies about her. This was a way to write history that wasn’t about dead women.”

Many people coming to the movie will know that Parr survived Henry, but not “what a battle of wills that survival entailed,” Tim Robey wrote in The Telegraph, after the film was shown in competition at Cannes last year. “This pungent, meaty historical drama posits them as mortal enemies not just in the domestic sphere: ideologically, they were on different pages of separate Bibles.”

A historical drama was an unlikely choice for the Brazilian director’s first foray into English-language filmmaking after a career of critically lauded small-scale movies and documentaries. When London producer Gabrielle Tana approached him in 2020 about Firebrand, his first thought, he said, was, “Did she really propose this to me?”

But as the pandemic and lockdown hit, he started reading about the Tudors. “I began to understand that this was really about Katherine, a woman trying to change things through soft power,” he said. “There are many narratives of the global South from American or English directors, and I started to think it was interesting to reverse that perspective.”

He also felt a connection. “There was something very hot-blooded about the Tudors, something operatic and kind of bling-bling which reminds me of Latin culture,” Aïnouz said. “It was surprising to me to find out that English identity, as we think of it, is an idea from the Victorian era. There was something dramatic and golden and violent and romantic about the Tudors that really intrigued me.”

Firebrand was nonetheless a big leap for Aïnouz. On previous movies, he spent weeks rehearsing actors, watching how they used space and paring the dialogue. “It’s not about improvising, but about finding the soul of the scene, something theater directors do a lot,” he said. “With larger-scale filmmaking, it’s hard to do this.” But Tana, he said, made it happen.

The film was shot in summer 2022 at Haddon Hall, a well-preserved country manor that dates to the 12th century. “He is like a conductor,” said Tana, as Aïnouz, dressed in black and wearing Wellington boots, gave swift directions to two groups playing separate scenes at each extremity of the garden, and to Vikander and Law as they walked between the groups. At another moment, Aïnouz had Vikander and Mina Andala, as a lady-in-waiting, play a scene on a loop, without cutting or signaling a new take.

“I was very precious about my work in the past,” Vikander said candidly in a recent video interview. “Now I’m more willing to go with new adventures, try new things, which was one of the reasons I wanted to work with Karim.” She had also been drawn to the character of Katherine, she said. “Somehow the person who survives doesn’t attract as much attention, but she was the first woman to publish a book in England, a fantastic mother to Henry’s children, a thinker, a survivor.” She added, “It’s one of these female stories that have never had a proper light shone upon them. I wanted to tell that story.”

The story revolves around Katherine’s support for an old friend, the progressive preacher Anne Askew (Erin Doherty), who argues that the Bible should be published in English so ordinary people can understand its precepts. For Henry — who broke from the Roman Catholic Church over his divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon — and his advisers, it is an issue of power and control. Katherine’s courage in maintaining her beliefs is shown as a vital influence on the future Queen Elizabeth (Junia Rees), the daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn.

“Religion was everything to people in the Tudor period,” said Elizabeth Norton, a Tudor historian who was an adviser on the film. “Everybody believes in God, and there is a ‘right’ way to worship; there isn’t the idea of tolerance we have today. It’s hard for contemporary audiences to understand, but just one change of word in a doctrine can mean heresy and death, and Katherine faces that charge.”

The emphasis on the domestic drama of the relationship between the insecure, volatile Henry and the outwardly calm, inwardly terrified Katherine was a compelling angle for Law, who has virtually defined movie-star good looks and so might seem a surprising choice for the aging, corpulent Henry. (Aïnouz doesn’t spare the viewer the sight of his horribly infected leg.) But the actor said he was immediately interested because he couldn’t think of other portrayals of Henry at that moment in his life.

“He had been a huge, beautiful, physically powerful, vibrant man, a dancer, a fighter, a jouster, a musician,” Law said in a recent video conversation. “To have all this behind him and to be this embittered, blistering, rotting old man seemed full of potential.”

Getting Henry’s physicality right was vital, Law said, and he zeroed in on the spreading leg infection. “I spoke to doctors about understanding what these wounds are like, the agonies that patients who suffer this are in. He lived with this for 10 years without any anesthetic. The pain obviously affected his personality, became a layer of his behavior.” The scenes of scarily violent rage toward Katherine “really emerged from the work with Karim,” Law said. “He was almost like a painter, layering up colors, and Hélène Louvart, the cinematographer, was phenomenal at somehow disappearing.” He added, “You didn’t always know when you were in a shot or not, and it created amazing authenticity and atmosphere.”

Those scenes were hard, Vikander said. “Not even the physical stuff, but the mental abuse Henry put Katherine through.”

Katherine didn’t choose to marry Henry, Aïnouz pointed out. “I had this big fiction thing in my head: What if a hard-core revolutionary was obliged to marry Putin or Trump? They wouldn’t give up their mission; they would try to find a way.”

Published 16 June 2024, 09:53 IST

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