Karim Aïnouz’s English language debut is a frustratingly buttoned-up take on the life of Henry VIII’s final wife, Catherine Parr.
When Catherine Parr married King Henry VIII, Brazil was a young country at 43. At that point, the Portuguese were still vigorously tearing at South American land and people alike, the violent ripples of colonisation writing in blood the bleak early history of the country. Almost three centuries would go by until Brazil left its subpar status as a colony to enter its short-lived monarchy era, with the seven-year stint of the Portuguese crown a risible attempt at establishing the small European country as one of the great white colonisers.
Despite a meek regency, Brazil – and great part of South America – have long cultivated a quizzical obsession with the idea of monarchy, with the English crown topping the ranks of curiosity. Just two years ago, Chilean director Pablo Larraín tapped into this strange cultural phenomenon with Spencer, a film rooted in the compassion offered by many Latinos to a woman shattered by power structures far too familiar to the colonised.
With Firebrand, Brazilian Karim Aïnouz becomes the latest South American director to find inspiration in a woman unwilling to be tamed by the royal family. Gone with Diana, in with Parr (played here by Alicia Vikander), the wife to take the coveted “survived” spot in the famous historical rhyme about Henry VIII (Jude Law in the film) and his six brides: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. Trying his hand at period drama, Aïnouz explores the patch of time preceding Henry VIII’s death, when Catherine’s Protestant sympathies brought her dangerously close to joining two of the King’s former wives six feet under.
Over two decades, Aïnouz has bent and morphed different cinematic styles to craft nuanced studies of the inner lives of his characters, playing with the technical possibilities of cinema as a framing device. His curiosity is defined by gentleness, his female characters the main benefactors of the director’s kind gaze, strong women trapped within the tight confinements of patriarchy yet never defined by it. It is no surprise, then, that the director found the inspiration for his English language debut in Parr’s story.
What is surprising is how little of Aïnouz’s nuanced sensibility is present in his newest, a film floating in the aimless limbo of characterless. In its goal to adapt Elizabeth Fremantle’s historical novel “Queen’s Gambit”, Firebrand bypasses the dramatic value of narrative filmmaking, sold as an ahistorical retelling of the little-discussed life of Parr but ultimately consisting of a lusciously textured but frigidly told reenactment that has little concern for prodding at the making and beliefs of the woman credited here as the one responsible for ushering in a new era for England.
With pus oozing from his rotting leg and sweat dripping from his grotesquely depicted body, Law does away with the handsomeness that defined many of his greatest roles to embody the infamous King. He grunts and puffs, more creature than man, screeching “My leg!” in a manner reminiscent of Borat yelling “My wife!”. The pantomime nature of his performance amusing yet out of place. Next to Law, Vikander’s meek frame stands in contrast to the grandiosity of it all: her husband, palace, entourage and aspirations.
It is in Vikander that Firebrand finds rare moments of inspiration, the actress framed by cinematographer Hélène Louvart with the delicacy of Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, her existence lingering precariously between the potential for greatness and the heavy burden of eternal shame. Firebrand lingers in this space, too, but sadly lands towards the latter, with Aïnouz’s signature artistry painfully numbed by the shackles of the conventional.
Published 24 May 2023