Producers: Gabriella Tana and Carolyn Marks Blackwood    Director: Karim Aïnouz   Screenplay: Henrietta Ashworth and Jessica Ashworth   Cast: Alicia Vikander, Jude Law, Eddie Marsan, Sam Riley, Amr Waked, Patsy Ferran, Erin Doherty, Mina Andala, Junia Rees, Patrick Buckley and Simon Russell Beale   Distributor: Roadside Attractions/Vertical

Grade: C

The marital woes of King Henry VIII have long been the stuff of, as they used to say, stage, screen and television.  Charles Laughton won an Oscar for “The Private Life of Henry VIII” in 1933, and critics (as well as historians) praised the BBC’s 1970 mini-series “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” (which two years later inspired the film “Henry VIII and His Six Wives”).  Shakespeare wrote a “Henry VIII,” but it’s a collaborative effort, and rarely staged; however the British pop musical “Six,” about his wives, has enjoyed great success (it’s had a long Broadway run and has spawned a touring company).  (The less said about Richard Rodgers’ notorious 1976 flop “Rex,” the better.)     

Now we have Karim Aïnouz’s “Firebrand,” based on Elizabeth Fremantle’s 2013 novel “The Queen’s Gambit.”  Pruning down the book’s narrative span substantially, it’s extremely limited chronologically, covering only the last months of the king’s life in late 1546 and early 1547 (he died on January 28), when he returned to England infirm after waging war in France.  The focus is on his relationship with his sixth wife Katherine Parr, who was suspected of heresy because of her espousal of ideas affiliated with the Protestant reform that the king opposed—a situation that put her in danger of meeting the same grim fate as two of her five predecessors as Henry’s queen, particularly as the very traditional Bishop Stephen Gardiner had the king’s ear—and his eye on the queen–at the time.

It’s an interesting period in Henry’s reign, but Aïnouz plays it very ponderously, and is hampered by Fremantle’s portrayal of Katherine—mirrored in the screenplay by Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth—as a shrewd political player who can outwit her opponents with cool efficiency but, in the end, resorts to the most extreme measures to save her own skin while pushing her religious agenda forward.  To call her a “Firebrand,” though, seems a misnomer.  Kindling might be more properly descriptive; but it wouldn’t be much of a movie title.

Mixing fact with fantasy, Aïnouz presents Katherine (a very reserved Alicia Vikander) as a studious woman, liberated for her time (and ours, frankly), whose managerial abilities Henry prized so much that he left her as regent during his continental campaign.  As such she presides over the royal council, to the irritation of Bishop Gardiner (Simon Russell Beale, in fine grumpy form), who carefully scrutinizes her actions for possible heresy, despite which she goes secretly to visit her old friend Anne Askew (overly aggressive Erin Doherty), a radical preacher stirring up the common folk to support religious change.  She is also forced to deal with the return to court of Thomas Seymour (Sam Riley), with whom she was romantically involved before agreeing, at his urging along with that of his older brother Edward (Eddie Marsan), to wed the king.  (Both actors virtually disappear behind huge beards that leave them virtually unrecognizable, limiting their performances to a bare minimum.

Suddenly Henry (Jude Law) returns to take back the reins of power after reaching a truce with France, though he’s in bad physical shape—not just obese but with a leg wound that refuses to heal.  Law plays him as a brutish, preening thug, who abuses Katharine during lovemaking that seems more like rape.  (Presumably a body double was employed for Law in the bed chamber scenes, since while he can simulate the royal girth in a padded costume, that would be difficult when he’s seen nude from behind.)

Gardiner soon reports Katharine’s Protestant leanings to him, and investigates her alleged meeting with Askew, recently executed for heresy, even as the queen continues to teach Prince Edward (Patrick Buckley) and Princess Elizabeth (Junia Rees), who dote on her, while reintroducing the more distant Princess Mary (Patsy Ferran), long excluded from her father’s presence, back to court.  Things reach the point where she’s in danger of being arrested and charged with heresy herself—even Thomas betrays her, though it pains him to do so—and quickly purges her chambers of all the books and papers that indicate her religious leanings.  Gardiner, unable to prove his case, relents for the moment, but the queen, foreseeing further trouble ahead, decides to ensure Henry will not turn on her in the future by definitively dealing with the possibility while in bed with him.  Her act, while it will probably win favor from today’s viewers horrified by sexual abuse and anxious fir perpetrators to be punished, is pure modern wish-fulfillment fantasy with no historical foundation.

“Firebrand” is handsomely mounted, shot at Haddon Hall in Derbyshire with an elegant production design by Helen Scott and convincing period costumes by Michael O’Connor (as well as excellent hair and makeup work by Jenny Shircore), though they’re not shown to best advantage in Hélène Louvart’s dark cinematography, a component of Aïnouz’s somber, brooding vision, as is also Heike Parplie’s editing, which can be most charitably described as unhurried.  Dickon Hinchliffe’s music, which incorporates some of Henry’s own compositions into the action, is estimable, but its effect is ruined by the sudden intrusion of a raucous pop song by Polly Jean Harrey, “Down by the Water,” over the closing credits.  Why directors insist on using such unsuitable stuff to end their films nowadays is a continuing puzzle.                      

Faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of the novel rather than to history, Aïnouz depicts a Katharine Parr who’s more reflective of twenty-first century feminist attitudes than those of the sixteenth, and does so at a plodding, dramatically flaccid pace. Understandably, given its modernist, positive slant on the queen, the film neglects to ignore one unintended result of Katherine’s machinations.  By reconciling Henry with his daughters and encouraging him to include them in the line of royal succession, she ironically helped bring about not only the reign of Edward VI, with its sharp turn to the Protestantism she favored, but that of his successor Mary, whose restoration of Catholicism and persecution of Protestants she would have deplored, had she been alive to see it.