Henry VIII and Katherine Parr, Who Survived Him, Are the Focus of ‘Firebrand’

Henry VIII and Katherine Parr, Who Survived Him, Are the Focus of ‘Firebrand’

Midway through Karim Aïnouz’s “Firebrand,” King Henry VIII of England takes a break from playing bowls on the lawn to walk with his sixth wife, Katherine Parr. Gripping her arm tightly, limping heavily, the king, played with terrifying menace by Jude Law, offers a threat to those who betray him. “They know what would happen,” he says quietly, turning to face the queen. “We’d have to have their head cut off.” Alicia Vikander’s Queen Katherine smiles faintly. “I’m sure you would come up with something much more creative,” she says.

“Firebrand,” which is based on the Elizabeth Freemantle novel “Queen’s Gambit” and opens Friday, is set during Henry’s final months, in 1546-1547. Katherine is trying to keep her head on her shoulders while the king, ill, paranoid and angry, grows increasingly suspicious of her alliance with religious reformers. Egged on by the poison-drip whisperings of the power-hungry bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner (Simon Russell Beale), who fears Katherine’s progressive leanings, a witch-hunt begins in an effort to convict her of heresy and treason.

“I thought of it as a thriller,” said Aïnouz, 58, by phone last month from the Cannes Film Festival, where his movie, “Motel Destino,” was in competition. “There are so many stories about the wives who perished under Henry. Katherine was older, politically astute, intellectual, rebellious. She survived. And yet there were no movies about her. This was a way to write history that wasn’t about dead women.”

Many people coming to the movie will know that Parr survived Henry, but not “what a battle of wills that survival entailed,” Tim Robey wrote in The Telegraph, after the film was shown in competition at Cannes last year. “This pungent, meaty historical drama posits them as mortal enemies not just in the domestic sphere: ideologically, they were on different pages of separate Bibles.”

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