Cannes: Alicia Vikander on Henry VIII Film 'Firebrand' and Being a 'Big Jason Bourne Fan'

‘Firebrand’ review: Alicia Vikander and Jude Law dominate in Karim Aïnouz’s historical drama bristling with court intrigue

At the beginning of Karim Aïnouz’s richly textured and suspenseful historical drama, Burning ember, King Henry VIII commends his sixth and last wife, Katherine Parr, for her excellent work as regent while overseas engaged in warfare. No matter her efforts to limit her powers to irrelevant matters, he tells her that she won’t have to worry her “pretty little head” about it any more. The threat posed by women who think for themselves to the absolute power of men is a central theme in this starchless tale of Tudor intrigue, its protofeminist perspective weaving seamlessly into the narrative fabric without a hint of didactic.

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Brazilian filmmaker Aïnouz has been making hypnotically sensual films imbued with lush melancholy for over 20 years, including seductive dramas such as Mrs. Satan, The Silver Cliff and the criminally underrated jewel Invisible life (seriously, check it out, you’ll thank me), plus several signature documentaries.

Burning ember

The bottom line

Rescue an inspirational woman from the footnotes of history.

Place: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Launch: Alicia Vikander, Jude Law, Simon Russell Beale, Eddie Marsan, Sam Riley
Director: Karim Aïnouz
Screenwriters: Henrietta Ashworth, Jessica Ashworth, with additional text by Rosanne Flynn, based on the novel The Queen’s Gambitby Elizabeth Freemantle

2 hours

Her English-language debut, adapted from Elizabeth Freemantle’s celebrated novel The Queen’s Gambit by screenwriters Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth, is something of a departure for Aïnouz into the potentially more rigid domain of period drama. But Burning ember, despite being steeped in the atmospheric grit and darkness of a country engulfed in plague and under tyrannical rule, is alive with a vigorous contemporary attitude. He steers clear of the usual anachronistic tricks (aside from the heady deployment of a PJ Harvey banger in the credits), instead instilling his own modernity and reflections on gender inequality and spousal abuse in more subtle ways .

In many ways it is a spiritual prequel to Elizabeththe fantastic 1998 biodrama that propelled Cate Blanchett up the map, even though there were two monarchs between Henry VIII and the Virgin Queen – portrayed here as a very observant young woman by brilliant newcomer Junia Rees, who gets a stun of a finale I shoot.

Like Blanchett’s film, Burning ember provides a great leading role for an actress to bite, which Alicia Vikander does with gusto, but also with the restraint and watchful self-control of a well-aware woman who didn’t always end well for her predecessors in Henry’s bed. It’s her best work since Ex car.

As for the ailing monarch, aching from swollen legs, ulcerated with gout, and oozing blood and foul-smelling pus, Jude Law is dreadfully moody. Jovial one minute and dangerous the next, his Henry is a man whose body is failing him, literally rotting with poison. Either he’s grunting over Katherine like a gasping mass or he’s eyeing her with suspicions of cheating. His two favorite words from him seem to be “Shut up!”

What is perhaps most impressive about Law’s layered performance is the evidence beneath Henry’s ruthlessness that he really loves Katherine enough to pray she doesn’t reveal himself to be like the others, that he believes everyone has failed or betrayed him. His anger is terrifying when he yells at the Lord for testing him, foaming at the mouth with his practical method of eliminating troublesome wives: “We put them down!”

Henry’s main complaint, aside from being barely ambulatory, is his indignation at the growing following of Protestant radicals who yearn for a revolution that would allow them to worship God above the king. One such radical faction is led by Katherine’s childhood friend Anne Askew (Erin Doherty), whose ardent passion for her cause lands her on the wanted list for treason. Katherine’s visit to Anne at a shrine during Henry’s absence puts her at risk, as does a subsequent encounter where she gives Anne a precious necklace she received from Henry, urging her to sell it for money to get through the winter .

The king’s growing distrust of Katherine is fueled by constant whisperings into the ear of the fiercely anti-Protestant bishop Stephen Gardiner (played with sinister Machiavellian purpose by the brilliant Simon Russell Beale). Aware that Henry’s days are numbered and eager to orchestrate the succession his way, she steadily ramps up his efforts to charge Katherine with treason.

The bishop’s determination to prove his association with Anne Askew involves questioning the guards and her ladies-in-waiting, who remain staunchly loyal despite threats of execution. Gardiner also relies on Edward Seymour (Eddie Marsan), uncle of the possible future king, to provide evidence of Katherine’s extramarital affair with her brother Thomas (Sam Riley). But Katherine is too smart to risk her infidelity, even though the two have remained close.

Anyone familiar with which of Henry’s wives died, were driven out, or survived knows the outcome for Katherine, which makes it surprising how deftly the filmmakers build nail-biting tension around her fate. This comes with great help from Dickon Hinchliffe’s brooding symphonic score, its range and power expertly modulated throughout. The last days of Henry’s life become a time of terror for Katherine, and her course of action is perhaps one of the writers’ most significant – and surprisingly effective – detours into speculative fiction.

In most dramas of the ancient royal hoax, the intrinsically good character is the least interesting. That’s not at all the case here with Vikander’s Katherine, an enlightened woman who is all about silent control. She remains steadfast in her idealistic beliefs despite the rot that surrounds her, she mostly holds to her own advice and is brave enough to risk offending the king if it means taking back her dignity after one of her routine public humiliations. her.

In some ways the film’s title is a misnomer in that she’s not anyone’s conventional idea of ​​an ember, but the certainty of her commitment is clear even under the worst duress. Never overemphasizing the character’s uncommon courage, Vikander also conveys real fear, coupled with Katherine’s determination, and her agony is excruciating in a scene where the potential lifeline of bearing Henry a child slips out of hand. .

There are beautiful moments of solidarity between women – young Elizabeth as well as Katherine’s staff – which feed into the thematic foundation of women bringing an escape from the brutality of men and war, as well as being able to forge paths to the light, more open and tolerant. The very existence of this film, as Aïnouz points out, is a reminder of how history is generally more fixated on dead women than survivors.

The consistently gripping narrative is matched by lavish, often painterly imagery, with cinematographer Hélène Louvart’s understated rigging creating the illusion of using only natural light in the interior from candles, fireplaces or windows. The production and costume design (Helen Scott and Michael O’Connor) are also top-notch, from the highborn characters in their finery to the ragged-clad radicals. For fans of historical drama with edginess and vitality, this is truly worth your time.