Credit: Larry Horricks
by Emily DuGranrut Featured Film Horizon Line

Firebrand — Karim Aïnouz

June 14, 2024

In the opening moments of Firebrand, we meet Anne Askew (Erin Doherty), a fervent reformer preaching against the Church of England during King Henry VIII’s (Jude Law) reign. Catherine Parr (Alicia Vikander), the king’s sixth and final wife, looks on as her former friend argues against Henry’s reforms. It’s dangerous for Catherine to be there; should she appear as though she’s sympathizing with Askew, the king will surely have her arrested and killed, as he is known to do to his wives. Askew and Catherine have a conversation, in which Askew criticizes the Queen for how little she pushes back against Henry’s tyrannical rule of the church and realm. But Catherine knows her place, and is working to influence the king and his advisors little by little through manipulation as opposed to obvious and overt presentations like Askew’s. With the King away at war, Catherine is serving as regent, making policy decisions and slowly pushing the needle toward more substantial reform. However, the king soon returns from the battlefield, knocking Catherine back down to mere consort, severely diminishing her ability to influence him. Catherine, however, isn’t like Henry’s previous consorts; she is older, wiser, and knows how to carve out a role for herself at court.

Efforts to reframe androcentric historical narratives and place women at their rightful place in these accounts has been en vogue in recent years, both from academic and artistic perspectives. Research into the roles women played in the lives of “important” men has unearthed documentation showcasing the accomplishments of these people who were often simply regarded as wives or mothers in the history books. On Broadway, stage shows like Hamilton and Six (particularly relevant here) highlight those that were often merely understood as support at best and decor at worst in other works. A similar trend has become increasingly prevalent in film and literature — with the latter medium usually being adapted to the former — with stories about women breaking barriers: Hidden Figures and Radium Girls reflect the most typical efforts in this vein, while films like The Woman King and Joy pull the rug from historically masculist genres. Firebrand, then, arrives at a logical time.

Catherine Parr’s strong disposition and subtle feminist acts make her an obvious subject for director Karim Aïnouz’s latest feature (Motel Destino doesn’t yet have a release date). Aïnouz, who has a noted interest in narratives of female empowerment in various forms, subtly highlights this lesser-known Queen. Catherine, the first queen to publish a book under her own name, is often depicted simply as the wife who survived Henry, though as Firebrand attempts to detail, she was much more than that. But while the film focuses on Catherine’s life outside of being merely a wife and hopeful mother to a spare, it also falls victim to the same problem so many period pieces do: offering more in terms of aesthetic flourish than (melo)dramatic or psychological intrigue. This is especially unfortunate, because the reign of King Henry VIII is full of intrigue. Beyond the beheadings, political machinations, and religious goings-on, the women of Henry’s court were smart — even conniving, in some cases — and often held their own. From Henry’s mistresses to the various queens’ ladies-in-waiting to women like Anne Askew, female influence (and rage) was an ever-present element of the Tudor court. But in Firebrand, there are few female characters who have much have much function — let alone dimension — beyond Catherine and Askew, who returns as a specter at the end of the film to influence Catherine’s final act of empowerment. All of this adds up to that ending, a historically inaccurate attempt at dramatics that falls flat even as it offers a much-deserved “fuck you” to the patriarchy.

Another common thematic element in Aïnouz’s works is a casual and conspicuous display of sex. Period pieces can too often skew heavily toward a PG-13-style chasteness, but sex is as prominent in Firebrand as in the director’s other works, with several scenes of an overweight Henry trying to impregnate Catherine. Unfortunately, in execution these scenes, along with more gruesome depictions of the king’s injuries and Catherine’s miscarriage, come off as gratuitous rather than adding anything of substance to the saga. We don’t need to see Jude Law’s giant (assumingly prosthetic) naked ass mercilessly thrusting Vikander to understand how difficult Catherine’s plight was. And these sequences seem otherwise divorced from anything of import the film is trying to attend to; it’s just a little bit of throwback HBO gratuity to pad the runtime.

Elsewhere, in fits and starts, Firebrand presents a compelling portrait of Catherine, whose quiet resilience and strategic acumen offered a nuanced view of female agency in a patriarchal society. But it’s also an overly restrained one — when Henry’s anus and oozing wounds aren’t gracing the screen, that is — and seems too content to mostly shift focus away from Henry and call it a day. In an era of increased interest in fighting for honest recognition of women’s influence, Catherine’s story both has the potential for poignancy and establishes a lurid playground for baroque period play. But much like Anne Askew’s criticism of Catherine, Firebrand simply doesn’t go far enough to make a real impact. 

DIRECTOR: Karim Aïnouz;  CAST: Alicia Vikander, Jude Law, Sam Riley, Eddie Marsan;  DISTRIBUTOR: Roadside Attractions/Vertical;  IN THEATERS: June 14;  RUNTIME: 2 hr.