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Firebrand at Cannes review: Jude Law is a magnificent Henry VIII but he’s not supposed to be the point

Alicia Vikander in Firebrand (handout)
Alicia Vikander in Firebrand (handout)

”Uneasy is the head that wears the crown”. And if you happen to be married to Henry VIII of England, uneasy is your head too given what has happened to your predecessors. Such is the case for Catherine Parr (Alicia Vikander), Henry’s last wife, in Karim Aïnouz’s first English-language film Firebrand.

It opens with a statement that we know history via men and war, and anything else is “often wild” conjecture. There is much here that would make historians raise a learned eyebrow and the wild speculation on display somehow diminishes Catherine’s importance while trying to raise it.

Firebrand’s focus is the queen’s religious leanings and her friendship with Anne Askew (Erin Doherty), a Protestant preacher. Anne is feisty and zealous in her desire to spread the word; Catherine is loyal and foolhardy in her desire to see her old friend. The other focus is on her relationship with her husband. When the king returns from his French campaign, her standing, and her head, are at risk of tumbling.

As Henry VIII, Jude Law is fantastic – a corpulent bully hanging out with his mates, carnal in every way: he’s always rubbing his nose, picking his ear, shoving his fingers in mouths and over faces, lapping up everything with voracity. He is attractive and repellent, with his beautiful voice and weeping sores. He’s sometimes loving and often monstrous, but he is always paranoid, seeing potential betrayal everywhere.

There’s a reason five wives have been dispatched before Catherine Parr’s arrival. Which makes it all the more frustrating that Henry’s cohorts are anonymous and there appears to be little interest in allowing the viewer entry to the king’s inner sanctum or his life beyond the castle walls.

Aïnouz has assembled a fine supporting cast but they are given little chance to shine. The fiercely talented Doherty’s role is minor, while as Edward Seymour, the wonderful Eddie Marsan is given little to work with. This is also true of Simon Russell Beale as Bishop Stephen Gardener. These three could have added so much more depth to this somewhat jumbled tale, why assemble such a stellar cast and then give them nothing much to do?

Vikander can’t break free of the restraints of her character. This is the fault of the screenplay by Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth (based on Elizabeth Fremantle’s novel Queen’s Gambit), which is all over the place. The language fluctuates between Tudor and contemporary English (Henry: “We’re done”). There’s nothing wrong with using contemporary English as long as it’s consistent. But there is too much about this film that seems garbled.

In the end, despite ostensibly being a film about Parr, what will linger in the memory is Jude Law’s fascinating and terrifying portrayal of her tyrannical husband. Which, presumably, is the exact opposite of the point.

Firebrand screened at the 76th Cannes Film Festival