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A cruel and morbidly obese Jude Law is the biggest highlight of this highly conventional period drama about Henry VIII and his sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr - from the 53rd edition of Rotterdam

The year if 1546 and the place is London. Henry VIII (Law) is a morbidly obese, sadistic and repulsive 55-year-old. He is married to Catherine Parr (Alicia Vikander), after having personally ordered the beheading of two of his previous wives and possibly poisoned a third one. She claims unwavering devotion to her husband, however she is friends with English writer Anne Askew (Erin Doherty), an agitator who insisted in translating the Bible to English at her own accord, and spurring the English people to fight for reform. Anne ends up burning at the stake, and Catherine is concerned that the same could happen to her should the King ever find out about her connection to the “heretic”.

The rest of this 120-minute movie basically revolves around Catherine attempting to concern her ideological inclinations. plus the fact that she gave Anne some money to finance a rebellion. from the murderous King and his sidekick Stephan Gardner (Simon Russel Beal), a bishop and politician always ready to assist His Majesty, taking the dirty investigations into his own hands. His interrogation techniques are particularly chilling. Most of the court is on Catherine’s side. This includes Henry’s own children Elizabeth, Mary and the tiny Edward, who have a maternal affection towards their stepmother. The ghost of the former wives, however, is always around, with Catherine being constantly reminded how they were killed.

Jude Law outshines Vikander. The Swedish actress delivers a cut-and-dried performance lacking a little edge. Law is unpleasant, sadistic, self-righteous, smug and sanctimonious, with the perfectly repugnant smile. Henry VIII is revered, feared and despised by those around him. Praise must also go to the pallid and determined Doherty, as well as to the menacing Beale.

In the other hand, this is a movie entirely devoid of directorial identity. So much so that the director’s name doesn’t appear until the end of the film. This would be ok for a Hollywood flick of a British television drama. But not for a Brazilian auteur such as Karim Ainouz, a regular at the Cannes Film Festival for more than 20 years. Such events are very director-driven. Film listings display the film title, the filmmakers name, the time of the screening and nothing else. Karim’s usual themes (the director is more recognised for his topic than his aesthetic choices) are absent from Firebrand: sexuality, immigration, national identity (Brazilian, Algerian), female sensibility (despite being billed as a film about Catherine Parr, the spotlight here is on Jude Law, and this is by no means a female-driven film), and more. Your will recognise the actors because their faces appear in the film. Yet there is nothing to identify the 57-year-old helmer. In other words, this could be a film directed by any prominent filmmaker.

Based on the 2013 novel Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle, Firebrand makes some historical assumptions, which are presented here as undisputed facts. One of them is the romanticised nature of Henry VIII’s death. Another one is also highly unlikely confrontation between the King and his morally virtuous children (who would’ve thought that Bloody Mary was a kind and altruistic teen!?). The film strangely omits Catherine’s death the year after her husband’s. To boot, it ends with a strange (and also highly romanticised) focus of Elizabeth II, failing to mention that her two other siblings – Edward and Mary – became monarchs before she did, and that they had a far less impressive record in power. Selective and creative history.

This is a movie that relies on production design, art direction and top-drawer actors than historicity and auteurism. The wigs and the hairdos are impeccable, as is the reconstruction of the Tower of London at a time when the English capital was a far less urban place, and the castle was instead surrounded by verdant hills and dense woods. Law’s make-up is excellent, making him look like a decaying old man (his appearance perfectly matches his detestable personality). He has a leg and a butt double, making his character look genuinely fat while having sex or treating the wound on the leg that could eventually claim his life. In other words, an enjoyable period drama lacking any particular distinction.

Firebrand premiered in the Official Competition of the 76th Cannes Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. Also showing at the 53rd International Film Festival Rotterdam.

By Victor Fraga - 22-05-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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