- Hans Weber
- December 6, 2023
‘Firebrand’ KVIFF 2023 review: Alicia Vikander and Jude Law in heated royal drama
Catherine Parr attempts to stand by her beliefs in the face of oppressive husband Henry VIII – who has already disposed of multiple previous wives – in Firebrand, an intense royal drama from Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz that opened this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival after premiering in competition at Cannes.
Bolstered by two commanding central performances by Alicia Vikander as Parr and (especially) Jude Law as Henry VII, Firebrand works best as an unflinching portrayal of an abusive relationship impossible to get away from. Still, the narrative core (from a script by Henrietta Ashworth and Jessica Ashworth) lacks the fiery impact of its lead performers.
Firebrand opens with Parr as Queen regent as Henry leads a military campaign in France. She ducks her royal guard to meet with old friend and current enemy of the Roman Catholic church Anne Askew (Erin Doherty), seen advocating Protestant ideas that include delivering the word of God to the people in English.
Catherine’s early assistance to Askew, who will later be tortured and burned at the stake as a heretic, forms the basis for Firebrand‘s conflict. She has some supporters, including Princess Elizabeth (Junia Rees) and heir-to-the-throne Prince Edward (Patrick Buckley), as well as Edward’s uncles, Edward (Eddie Marsan) and Thomas Seymour (a dashing Sam Riley).
But Parr has one key antagonist: scheming bishop Stephen Gardiner (a menacing Simon Russell Beale), who views her dalliances as a threat to the church. Gardiner also seems to have the ear of the King, who otherwise displays no affection or interest in Catholic
Firebrand kicks into high gear with the introduction of Henry VIII, and for better or worse, Law’s foaming-at-the-mouth portrayal of the King of England dominates the movie. Hobbling around in a massive frame atop ulcerated legs, sweat pouring down his brow and emitting saliva with every line of dialogue, he’s a grotesquely intimidating presence.
Law has gone to these kinds of extreme lengths before – most notably, perhaps, in the thoroughly unpleasant Dom Hemingway – but he’s truly vile here, and Firebrand works best as a portrayal of an unbearably abusive relationship that Parr cannot possibly extricate herself from… or can she?
Firebrand‘s fatal flaw is that while it believes in Parr’s character, it doesn’t share her passion for bringing the word of God to the people. What Parr was so personally invested in, what she risked her life over, is confined to two early scenes with Askew and otherwise utilized as a narrative device to fan tension between Catherine and Henry. Because of that, while we can identify with Parr’s struggle, it makes it hard for us to invest in her character.
Those looking for historical accuracy or royal drama will be left wanting, but the film’s uncompromising look at the relationship between Parr and Henry VIII makes it worth catching. Bolstered by first-rate costumes and set design, and some excellent performances including Law’s terrifying Henry VIII, Firebrand may only slowly smolder, but it still leaves a mark.