Firebrand Has Outstanding Performances In a Tired Story

Firebrand still of Catherine, played by Alicia Vikander, walking outside.

Firebrand has some knockout performances that make it worth watching, particularly Alicia Vikander. However, the “been there done that” story does this excellent cast no favors.

Firebrand marks another story about King Henry VIII. But instead of him, Ann Boleyn, or the other sister, audiences get his final wife, Catherine (Alicia Vikander, Tomb RaiderEx Machina). However, narration comes from Princess Elizabeth (Junia Rees, Tell That to the Winter Sea), who later becomes the Queen ruling for 45 years. So, instead of a depiction of Henry in his prime, audiences see him on his way out. However, that doesn’t slow his jealousy and abusive nature. Although it’s a tiresome tale regardless of perspective. However, through performances and lingering uncertainty, Firebrand creates a memorable portrayal of a woman who finds her strength in a dangerous royal game dominated by men with their own agendas. 

Directed by Karim Aïnouz and written by Henrietta Ashworth, Jessica Ashworth, and Elizabeth FremantleFirebrand begins with Catherine governing alone. King Henry names her regent while he is away, so she has some freedom. Though this displays an initial level of trust, that soon changes. He becomes increasingly distrustful upon his return as his health deteriorates. However, the film does an excuse his temperament by tying it to his health. After all, he had two prior wives executed. So, out the gate, there’s a clear line of villains, primarily men, naturally.  

Firebrand Has Wonderful Performances But the Same Story

Alicia Vikander is a standout as she deftly portrays Catherine. Her demeanor and words often contradict the emotions beneath the surface. The viewer must guess her motivations. It’s unclear whether she’s resentful or a woman in love with a man, regardless of how he treats her. Either way, there are several difficult viewing moments. Although, the film fortunately cuts away before anything too egregious occurs. Jude Law (The Talented Mr. RipleyCloser), as King Henry VIII, delivers as a man-child whose mood can lead to the death of his partner. 

Firebrand still of King Henry VIII, played by Jude Law.
Firebrand still.

It’s not a film that feels necessary, especially when weighed against countless untold stories. Hollywood consistently revisits the same handful of true stories. Often, they come at it from a new perspective and call that fresh. It’s tiresome. But as performances go, Firebrand delivers an engaging story that makes audiences care about Catherine even if King Henry’s tales have been done to death. 

A Puzzling Character and Purposeful Direction Keep Audiences Dialed

What makes Catherine an enigma is that she never appears deceitful. She seems like a woman on a road with two paths open before her. So, she’s constantly uncertain about which path to traverse. This uncertainty translates to how she engages with others. It’s shown with her dear friend Anne Askew (Erin Doherty, The CrownReawakening). It also comes across to viewers. One moment, Catherine appears meek, deferring to her husband. Although it’s understandable, especially after her outburst and his swift and fearsome response. But there is more to her character. Occasionally, a fiery temper comes to the surface. So, like Henry, audiences puzzle her out. 

Direction-wise, Karim Aïnouz’s eye captures the cluttered and claustrophobic feeling. It’s particularly prevalent after King Henry’s return. Eyes are everywhere; Catherine can trust no one. The color palette and atmosphere are dreary. This dreariness mirrors Catherine’s mood. The setting is almost another character in Firebrand, one waiting to engulf Catherine and all she loves. 

Firebrand has some knockout performances that make it worth watching, particularly Alicia Vikander. However, the “been there done that” story does this excellent cast no favors. Star power can only take these stories so far. Audiences are hungry for more than the same old tales. While the cast and direction make Firebrand a cut above other King Henry stories, it’s still the same tired cloth. 

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