Tribeca 2024 Review: FIREBRAND, Feminist History Revision with Good Heart and Too Much Effort

Jude Law and Alicia Vikander star in Karim Ainouz's period drama.

Contributing Writer
Tribeca 2024 Review: FIREBRAND, Feminist History Revision with Good Heart and Too Much Effort

While King Henry VIII is off fighting a senseless war, his sixth wife Catherine Parr (Alicia Vikander) serves as a regent queen and secretly sneaks off to hang out with her friend, protestant radical Anne Askew (Erin Doherty). Anne doesn’t share Catherine’s optimism when the latter claims that her husband has changed -- this is the man with an unfortunate habit of beheading or exiling his wives after all -- and that her destiny is to change the king’s mind.

Soon, Henry (a very unexpected Jude Law) returns, angrier and more paranoid than ever, and Anne is promptly arrested. Catherine tries to stay in her royal husband’s good graces in the middle of all the scheming between the late queen Jane Seymour’s brothers Edward (Eddie Marsan) and Thomas (Sam Riley), as well as the powerful bishop Stephen Gardiner (Simon Russell Beale). As the king’s health takes a turn for the worse and his wounded leg literally starts to rot, the games of thrones intensify, and Catherine now fights to merely stay alive.

Firebrand, which is now having its North American premiere at Tribeca, made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Its director Karim Aïnouz has been a Cannes darling ever since his feature debut Madame Satã was in Un Certain Regard section. His latest film, Motel Destino, also just had its premiere at the festival.

His filmography has always been versatile, and his interest in Parr’s story is not as surprising as it may seem on the surface. His feature Invisible Life, which premiered in 2018 at – you guessed, Cannes, was shot through a clearly feminist lens. So, Aïnouz taking on Elizabeth Fremantle’s novel Queen’s Gambit about Parr, with similar optics, absolutely makes sense.

Make no mistake: despite the petticoats and the jewels, this is a modern and timely story at its core, with Catherine and Henry’s union as an embodiment of a toxic and abusive relationship, and the heroine getting more agency than she had in real life or even in Fremantle’s book. Basically, all of Henry’s wives are not only a stuff of cautionary tales but legends at this point. Catherine Parr stands out as the most rational and self-contained among them, with the notable exception of Anne of Cleves, the wife who managed to arrange herself a pretty nice life after Henry rejected her and actually outlived both him and Catherine.

Aïnouz does a good job making sure there is no trace of any romanticizing of said relationship here. Thus, the rotting leg with eager maggots on it, a few breathtakingly (and intentionally) unerotic copulation scenes and the general lack of aesthetical haze that often goes around in period dramas.

Jude Law’s Henry fits right into this concept. Somehow looking exactly like the king’s most famous image from Hans Holbein’s portrait, he’s boisterous, disgusting and tortured by both physical and mental decline; he obviously has a blast in this role. Alicia Vikander’s performance as Parr is more subdued, as she is very convincing as a woman seemingly losing her gambit who cannot afford to fall into despair. If only everything else in the film was that nuanced.

From the very start, Firebrand proves to be the film that tries too hard to make absolutely sure everyone understands what it’s about. The very first dialogue between Catherine and Anne is already on the nose, setting up the main theme, but then we also have the heroine reminiscent about those meetings.

We also get a narrator, a young daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn, future queen Elizabeth I (played by Junia Rees), who additionally explains things too. The scenes with her are filled with dramatic irony so much, reminding us that she is the most important figure here from a historical standpoint, the authors might as well wink at the camera.

There is also Sam Riley with a questionable bushy beard, whose character serves only one functionary purpose in the heroine’s journey. By the end, you almost wish for some sort of a twist,  but the only one that happens only manages to twist the history itselft, and not enough to be really satisfying or truly outrageous. 

The film enjoys its North American premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival. It screens again on Wednesday, June 12. 

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Alicia VikanderJude LawKarim AinouzTribeca 2024Tribeca Festival

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