Few would have imagined that Brazilian-Algerian director Karim Aïnouz––whose The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão won the top prize in Un Certain Regard four years ago––would make his Competition debut with a Tudor period drama, Firebrand. For his English-language debut, Aïnouz was handed a script penned by Henrietta Ashworth and Jessica Ashworth (writers of Tell It to the Bees and Killing Eve), the feminist tone of which is quite obvious. Even if one can easily tell that Aïnouz was attached to the project rather than seeking it out himself, his outsider perspective brings a certain freshness to this loosely historical retelling of the last months of King Henry VIII’s (a tyrannical Jude Law) reign. Yes, the one who beheaded his wives.

Our entry point––our central character––is Queen Catherine Parr (Alicia Vikander), a confident young woman whose benevolence is only matched by her determination: to do well, to make a change. Historically this resoluteness has been measured through Catherine’s radical Protestant beliefs, and in the film her devotion is what eventually gets her in trouble. In this way,  Firebrand plays out as much as a costume drama as it is a thriller, where the stakes are high enough already: the Queen’s head, the future of the Church in relation to the monarchy. 

Like a Bluebeard tale, Firebrand relies on the tension and suspense embedded in the cat-and-mouse game between King and Queen. The audience already knows Catherine is a bit too careless and it’s only a matter of time for her to slip up; what is not so readily apparent is the complex relationship between the monarchs. Law and Vikander take it to the next level: both initially act with a sugar-coated disgust towards each other, but as the plot progresses and their relation becomes even knottier, a power game of submission and domination is certainly at play. By zooming into the end of the couple’s marriage, Aïnouz draws out all dramatic power latent in a more straightforward historical overview. Compressed time and strict dramaturgy make this film work.

Firebrand doesn’t per se make effort to be subversive, even if its first-person narration––by Catherine’s stepdaughter, the future Queen Elizabeth––keeps hammering the revisionist message rather didactically. While the final scene could be considered a bit too trite, the film in toto offers engrossing drama: a bit too predictable in plot, bone-chilling in execution. Alicia Vikander’s Catherine is never inert as one would expect from a serious period piece; her performance is rather of a panther ready to pounce, and she’s electrifying playing not just another wife of Henry VIII’s, but the only one who survived him. To no surprise, viewers will find some scenes of abuse difficult to watch and, yes, there will be one of rape in particular to underscore the king’s most vile, egotistical side.

Cinematographer Hélène Louvart (Happy as Lazzaro, The Lost Daughter) lenses this period political thriller as an intimate drama: faces, bodies, objects equally presenting in the foreground. The rooms and corridors of the Quarters are just temporary spaces for her camera and taste for the sublime in every situation. Additionally, Michael O’Connor’s luscious, but very compact costumes bring an unconventional touch to the film’s visuals, where reds and blues are so deep that they might as well be layered with the ghostly shadows haunting the Royal Family.

Even if Firebrand prefers to stay on the safe side of period cinema about the British monarchy––unlike Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite or Pablo Larraín’s Spencer––Karim Aïnouz doesn’t fail his audiences. Maybe the ones who’d expect something more of his auteur touch would face some disappointment, but the general audience wouldn’t mind an exciting, superbly acted tale of emancipation and revenge. 

Firebrand premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: C+

No more articles