Firebrand review: Jude Law thrillingly grotesque Henry VIII in fresh Tudor tale

Firebrand sees Alicia Vikander star as the sixth of Henry VIII’s six wives, with Jude Law as an oozing version of the Tudor King, decaying onscreen before the audience’s eyes.

However, despite stellar performances and an intriguingly unknown central concept for the story, this historical drama, directed by Brazilian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz, fails to dazzle as expected.

Oscar-winner Vikander is quietly compelling as the firebrand of the title, Katherine Parr (also styled as Catherine Parr), the final of Henry’s wives, an impressive figure who survived the monarch and was even the first woman to have a book published in English under her own name.

Appointed as regent in his stead while the King was off fighting in France, the film depicts well the sense of claustrophobia and danger felt by Katherine and her ladies in waiting, whose continued safety rested solely on the whim of an emotionally volatile monarch upon his return.

It must weigh pretty heavily on you when two of your predecessors were effectively banished and another two killed on your husband’s orders.

And with the Queen’s religion at odds with that of Henry and most of the rest of his court, she plays a risky game.

Peter Pan & Wendy star Law is quite frankly grotesque as Henry, complete with a pungent, ulcerated leg, the pain of which torments him as much as the smell turns the stomachs of everyone else.

In one scene sure to stay with viewers, his wound is treated with maggots.

There’s a sense that the actor revels in this realness of Henry’s decaying and flabby body, with another striking shot showing his pale, wobbling and fleshy behind (surely that of a double) as he avails himself of his marital duties with poor Katherine.

In sharp contrast to this gruesomeness, Firebrand on the whole is gorgeous to look at, like a rich and sweeping painting of the period with its deep jewel tones and slightly moody lighting.

The story should drive the film along at a swift pace, interesting – if historically inaccurate – as it is. It’s very much a film about Katherine and not Henry, so it’s a refreshingly different take as his last couple of wives don’t normally get much attention.

But it somehow fails to get fully off the ground, feeling stodgy and staid in some scenes. It lacks drive to propel some of the story onwards at various points too, making it seem longer than its two-hour runtime.

The supporting cast are just as commendable as the leads, with Eddie Marsan and Simon Russell Beale excellent as Edward Seymour and Stephen Gardiner respectively, conniving their way around court.

Sam Riley also pops up as Katherine’s former suitor Thomas Seymour in an eyebrow-raising ginger beard, but is criminally underused for a performer of his talents.

However, despite all the positive elements of the movie the high hopes of what sounded like catnip to a period drama fan, have been left somewhat unfulfilled.

Firebrand has sold to Prime Video in the UK, but is yet to receive a release date.

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