Karim Aïnouz’s English-language debut Firebrand wades into the troubled annals of English history, going back as far as Henry VIII’s shaky final years on the throne. This is a king more remarkably known in history for his many marriages in the quest for a male heir to secure the kingdom’s future. Right off the boat, the voiceover of one of his daughters acquaints us with Henry’s ( Jude Law) vicious, restless inclinations to discard his wives the minute he grew weary of their inabilities to provide him with a male child. This is a guy who is so caught up in his manic delusions and heightened anxieties he never shirks to mull over the consequences of his actions. He is relentless and ruthless and barely shows any compunction with those he gets bored with.

The children of his many now-absent, uprooted, disappeared wives are all attended to by his present wife, Katherine Parr ( Alicia Vikander), who looks after them as her own kids. She is the loving parental figure in their lives, filling in both for their mothers as well as their father, who seems absolutely disinterested in anything but his own petty matters of entertainment. Though very much under her husband’s domineering control, Katherine is fearlessly individual in her beliefs. Her childhood friend, Anne Askew ( Erin Doherty), is a preacher. She is among the lot viewed by the Church as radicals and heretics who are planning to overthrow the Church and are a threat to the stability of the realm. Katherine is increasingly sympathetic to the cause, which posits high stakes in her case.

But the prying gaze of the Church and Bishop Gardiner ( Simon Russell Beale) is too powerful to let her sneak past. Gardiner is manipulative, cannily planting ideas into the King’s head that also further his agenda of ensuring his own formidable authority. If the tide of reformers is allowed to gain root in the realm, he is well aware he stands to lose everything. The Church draws its weight and influence from the language of instruction, Latin, which impedes direct, easy access between the commoners and the Bible, thereby necessitating such intermediaries as priests. Gardiner has a decisive, strong hold over Henry’s decision-making. It is he who covers up Henry’s rampant disposal of his wives, guiding him through unsteady circumstances so that he doesn’t lose face publicly any more than he does already.

A still from Firebrand (2024).
A still from “Firebrand” (2024).

Henry is indisposed frequently because of his afflicted leg. Yet that barely stunts his forcefulness in getting what he sets his eyes on. He has no scruples over overtly lusting at any woman who catches his fancy. Katherine, too, musters abundant steeliness to not flinch in the air of paranoia and short-tempered flights that Henry establishes everywhere around him. However, she is not as cautious as she should be. The nexus of the Church and Henry’s mood swings in hurling out anyone who he no longer feels he can use creates a lethal combination that imperils Katherine horribly.

In Firebrand, Karim Aïnouz creates a vivid, sharply accentuated portrait of a woman surrounded by extreme precarity, being in the orbit of a husband who only cares about the prospect of a male heir. Henry is so distraught at it he accords no human dimensionality to anyone who fails him in that regard, or more precisely those he is convinced are beholden to him in the task of continuing the lineage of his dynasty.

While Jude Law has the more showboating role and enhances the sheer miserable-ness of a king barely being able to keep it together and revels in the vile rapaciousness of it all, it is Alicia Vikander, terrific in channeling coiled-up anguish and desperate fear, who is the still, fraught center of the film. Though the film could have benefited from biting more into the court intrigues, Aïnouz manages to keep us consistently riveted with his strange, fanciful, and sure telling of a familiar narrative. 

Read More: Where to Stream “Fireband”?

Firebrand (2024) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Letterboxd
The Cast of Firebrand (2024) Movie: Alicia Vikander, Jude Law, Eddie Marsan, Sam Riley, Simon Russell Beale, Erin Doherty
Firebrand (2024) Movie Release Date: June 14th, 2024 | Genre: History/Drama/Mystery & Thriller  | Runtime: 2h 0m
Where to watch Firebrand

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