The year is 1547. King Henry VIII (Jude Law) is abroad and has left his sixth wife, Catherine Parr (Alicia Vikander), to rule as regent in his absence. She has gained a taste for power, and she doesn't plan on relinquishing it… or so the men of Henry's court say. Trouble is, supposedly, afoot.
In fact, the suspicions held by Henry's men are not altogether misplaced, as we learn in the opening scenes of Firebrand, Karim Aïnouz' English-language debut. But rather than chasing power for herself, Catherine seems more preoccupied with undermining Henry's. To what end, we do not yet know.
Catherine arranges to meet with childhood friend and Protestant heretic Anne Askew deep in the woods and far from wandering eyes. It is here that she passes on a treasured, wildly expensive necklace given to her by none other than Henry himself, with the intention that it will be used to fund Anne's treasonous cause. Catherine has waded her way into dangerous waters, and with King Henry's unexpected early return, the looming current threatens to sweep her away.
Of course, given Henry's penchant for murder and violence, this current will most likely take the form of the guillotine should Catherine be caught. It is a metallic spectre whose menacing presence is constant throughout Firebrand, a fact of which Catherine does not seem to need reminding. Why, then, would a woman so smart take such an absurd risk and provide the enemy with a gift that could so easily be traced back to her? After all, the sticky fates of her predecessors are by now infamous: Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded… fate yet to be determined? It is a ridiculous, out-of-character risk to take and a question mark that Firebrand never really properly explains.
The idea of introducing plot points and failing to really develop them is not exclusive to the necklace. It is a flaw consistent throughout Firebrand, a counterfactual that takes its fair share of artistic license with history for the sake of the plot but doesn't really build them into it. And yet somehow these liberties don't seem to elevate the film in the way they should. Sure, the performances are brilliant, but beyond that, Firebrand contributes nothing new or exciting to the historical genre.
It is a testament to Jude Law's skill as an actor that he – the romantic dreamboat of the '90s and '00s – manages to make himself quite so grotesque and disgusting as Henry. From his oozing, infected leg, an ailment that he somehow manages to make so realistic you can practically smell it through the screen, to menacing and erratic fits of rage, to jovial merrymaking with the men of his court. Law seamlessly transitions from the extremes of one emotion to the next with an almost startling swiftness. His performance is scene-stealing, and sadly, it comes to overshadow Alicia Vikander's.
That's not to say Vikander doesn't deliver as Catherine: of that, no one can accuse her. With the material she's given, she offers a convincing and engaging performance. But frankly, an actress of her calibre deserves the opportunity to explore much more than she's able to work with in Firebrand. Aside from her rebellious actions at the start of the film and a closing act which really ramps up the drama, much of her time on-screen is spent playing with her adopted children, lamenting the life she could have had with a certain someone who claimed her heart many years ago, or watching Henry lord it over the women of his court. She loses all the agency she showed at the beginning, and her character arc and, consequently, her performance suffer for it: she is well and truly constrained by the boundaries of the script. Despite the film primarily following Catherine's journey, it's Henry you leave thinking about.
The genre of historical film is, like most genres, extremely saturated, and Aïnouz' contribution sadly does not offer anything new or exciting to the cinematic landscape of Tudor England. Sure, the backstabbing elements of it harken back to a Game of Thrones-esque political cat and mouse. Of course, the moody, grey English setting makes for a beautiful Renaissance-like portrait of England. And yes, there are moments of extreme tension during Henry's most extreme demonstrations of violence and misogyny.
But for a film that from the outset seems to promise a spotlight on the repressed rebel women of Tudor England, it fails to really push any boundaries whatsoever and so fades into disappointing blandness.