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Tribeca Review: ‘Firebrand’ is a Severely Lacking Historical Drama

Throughout history and even to this day, radical thinking has been condemned as dangerous and supposedly rebellious acts have been stifled. While new ideas will surely emerge, the idea is that, if they’re not allowed to catch on, they’ll remain outlawed and against the current regime, ensuring unchallenged continuation of prevailing opinions. Yet that hasn’t stopped many revolutionaries, who persevered even when they risked death for expressing what they believed. Firebrand showcases one instance of this in particularly lackluster and unconvincing action.

Katherine Parr (Alicia Vikander) is the sixth wife of King Henry VIII (Jude Law) who has been appointed as Regent while he is away at war. Katherine’s vision for the future of England doesn’t match with her husband’s or with the Tudor court, and she must carefully decide what actions she should take to keep herself in the good graces of those who could turn against her and slowly effect change that could take hold. Her greatest obstacle in Henry himself, who returns from the battlefield paranoid and deeply ill.

This true historical scenario is reminiscent in this format of the beginning of Game of Thrones, when King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) succumbs to illness and the reigns pass to his wife Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), who of course becomes one of the central characters of the show. Because this is based in fact and not invented, that’s not the bulk of this film, which instead finds Henry increasingly delirious and delusional, falling deeper into paranoia as Katherine fights for her life rather than take control from her weakened husband.

There’s a coherent story somewhere in here that just doesn’t come to life through this melancholy and uninviting presentation. Some scenes seem bizarrely and inappropriately comedic, and then, without warning, Katherine’s fate feels extremely precarious and under threat just moments later. It’s an uneven viewing experience, one that doesn’t serve to energetically educate about history or do its protagonist justice, focusing instead on her enduring dehumanizing abuse from her power- hungry husband more than anything else.

Vikander and Law are no stranger to period pieces, with The Danish Girl and Cold Mountain among their most celebrated performances, respectively, but they feel just as lost under the colorful costumes and large set pieces here as everything else. Vikander portrays Katherine as determined and resolute, willing to subject herself to torment from her husband because she knows why she’s fighting to remain alive. Law plays Henry broadly as someone wildly out of control, making him even more of a threat because of the influence he now so irresponsibly wields.

With so many years of human history behind us and many worthwhile stories still untold, this film feels like even more of a disappointment since it doesn’t fittingly elevate its main character to the status she should hold considering the influence she did have over her kingdom following the events portrayed within the span of this film. While the way it’s shown here certainly doesn’t recommend an expansion of the story, it’s possible that a larger – and later – chunk of Katherine’s life would have been more compelling, with less of a focus on the man who held her back and instead a more joyous celebration of what she accomplished in an unparalleled way for a woman of her era. Firebrand, as it stands, is a completely forgettable dramatization of a chapter of history that, upon reflection, might not have been quite as fitting to adapt as either the one before or after it.

Movie Rating: 4/10

Awards Buzz: Jude Law and Alicia Vikander are both past Oscar nominees, but this project will not return them to the awards conversation.

Author

  • Abe Friedtanzer

    Abe Friedtanzer is a film and TV enthusiast who spent most of the past fifteen years in New York City. He has been the editor of MoviesWithAbe.com and TVwithAbe.com since 2007, and has been predicting the Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, and SAG Awards since he was allowed to stay up late enough to watch them.

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