Review: Alicia Vikander is Henry VIII’s Last (and Surviving) Wife in Political, Historical Drama Firebrand

The many wives of King Henry VIII are an endless source of fascination for everyone from history buffs to soap opera fans. The six unfortunate women who make up this select group have been the subject matter for television series (The Tudors), films, and even the current stage musical Six. The new film Firebrand takes a unique, speculative nonfiction approach by focusing in on the final wife, Katherine Parr (played exquisitely by Alicia Vikander), who has been painted by some historians as little more than the king’s caretaker, but in reality was a spirited, passionate Queen Consort, a published author, loving stepmother to Henry’s many children, and even an outspoken supporter of the English Reformation, all of which is represented in her portrayal in this movie, from director Karim Aïnouz.

Based on the novel “Queen’s Gambit” by Elizabeth Fremantle (adapted by Jessica Ashworth and Henrietta Ashworth), Firebrand makes it clear that Katherine was well aware of the great personal risk she was taking on by agreeing to marry Henry (played almost unrecognizably by Jude Law). But when the king leaves the kingdom for an extended period to lead the fight overseas, he leaves her as Regent, the nation’s ruler. This allows her to visit her old friend (and we suspect something more intimate in her younger days) Anne Askew (Erin Doherty), who is preaching to an ever-growing number of followers about radical Protestant beliefs that have taken root in the kingdom, threatening the power of the royals. When Henry returns, his advisers recommend that he clamp down on these heretics, knowing full well that in doing so, the king will look suspiciously on his devoted wife, even questioning her fidelity. An infection in his leg has only gotten worse, leaving him paranoid and weak of body and mind.

The performances by Vikander and Law are what drive Firebrand. He’s pure impulse and desire-driven, while she is calculating yet still loyal to her husband. She even gets pregnant at one point in the story, and while at first, he seems overjoyed at the chance to have a second male heir, even that is short lived as his courtiers (led by Simon Russell Beale’s Stephen Gardiner) make his question even her fidelity as well as her religious conviction. Vikander also must play Katherine as a layered leader, privately mourning the loss of her friend Anne, who is caught up in the king’s fervor against heretics, while also being the dutiful stepmother, particularly to Henry’s oldest child Princess Elizabeth (Junia Rees), who will naturally grow up to become Queen Elizabeth I—the film sets up the foundation of her time as ruler quite beautifully.

Also on hand are the brothers of one of Henry’s former wives, Jane Seymour. The always great Eddie Marsan plays Edward Seymour, while Sam Riley is around as Thomas, a former love interest of Katherine before her marriage to Henry. The two appear to be close advisers to the King, who are also fiercely loyal to the Queen, but even they are pressured into betraying her when those behind the scenes believe the King is about to die and leave the kingdom to be ruled by Katherine. 

Firebrand makes the point early on that history is essentially just stories of men and wars, but when we leave the story with Elizabeth in charge, we immediately understand that her story was not defined by men or war, and that’s why she’s considered one of the greats. In the end, the film is about men being afraid of a woman in charge. The jousting for power is grotesque, as is the production’s dedication to keeping things as realistic to the period as possible. The King’s rotten leg is horrible to look at, and based on reactions, it really smelled like death (good times and good to watch right after a big meal). The performances are the real centerpiece of Firebrand, and they are committed and fantastic.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.