Alicia Vikander and Jude Law battle to bring life to the often lifeless period drama Firebrand

click to enlarge Alicia Vikander and Jude Law battle to bring life to the often lifeless period drama Firebrand
Dullness is the true ruler in Firebrand.

Can a film be both stodgy and subversive? Transgressive and tepid? Radical and rote? Firebrand lives in this near-constant state of contradiction, jostling its way through history with little to show for it. Even with a bold ending, it's all oddly banal. Its primary hook is how it offers a new take on the story of King Henry VIII — played by Jude Law in truly disgusting form that would put even his recent turn as Captain Hook to shame — by turning the stage over to his sole surviving wife, Catherine Parr. Played by Alicia Vikander in one of her better performances since Ex Machina, she does all she can to give life to a deathly dull film where death looms.

The film is defined by palace intrigue where we observe how Catherine is attempting to both help better society and create her own autonomy in a repressive world seeking to stifle it. There is something inside her that draws her to write and interact with Anne Askew (Erin Doherty), who wants the people to be able to worship God as opposed to the king. These early hushed conversations Catherine has with Anne prove more electrifying and engaging than anything else that follows. This is primarily due to how the king soon returns from war, bringing his repugnant and stifling disposition into all facets of the film. While much of this is by design, Law groaning his way through scene after scene soon grows tiresome.

This isn't the fault of either Vikander or Law as each brings a real commitment to what are challenging characters to capture. The performances are Fireband's primary redeeming quality. Vikander must bring the right amount of poise to her character just as she must also tread carefully since stepping out of line and getting caught is to risk death. Indeed, this ends up being the driving conflict of the film as the connection that she had with Askew comes under scrutiny. That is where Law lumbers in, carrying his festering wound and paranoia in a way that is as pitiful as it can be petrifying. He is capable of wielding immense cruelty at the drop of a hat.

Much of this sounds interesting on paper, but for all the thought put into things like the costumes, production design and performances, the film just feels like it is getting caught up in itself. The direction of the film is itself rather unimpressive, with most conversations feeling rather stuffily shot. Though Karim Aïnouz clearly wants to delve a bit deeper into a woman who has been overlooked by history and the stories we tell about them, it still feels like we are waiting for that. Writers Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth, adapting the novel Queen's Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle, succeed at giving Catherine her moment in the spotlight. It just is hard to shake how the film itself is rather ordinary and even often stiff despite the unique framing it is taking.

As someone who's already seen Aïnouz's upcoming Motel Destino, Firebrand feels like a film that was made by an entirely different, more drab filmmaker. For all the historical liberties that he is taking here, there is little new ground that feels like it is being broken. Though the point could be about the smuggling in of new ideas to a genre that can be very set in its ways in terms of narrative structure, Aïnouz feels like he too is constantly boxed in. Even with the ending where it flaunts the historical record in a manner that has more of a sharp bite, the road to get there was mostly standard fare. "There is more than one way to scorch the Earth," we are told via narration late in the film. While this is an intriguing sentiment and thesis statement around which to build a film, Firebrand never burns brighter than a flicker. ♦

Two Stars Firebrand
Rated R
Directed by Karim Aïnouz
Starring Alicia Vikander, Jude Law, Erin Doherty

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