Weekend Movie Pick?? Firebrand

It’s hard for me to dislike a movie about the Tudors. But not impossible. Firebrand, the new movie about Henry VIII’s sixth and last wife, Katherine Parr, directed by Karim Aïnouz (trailer), could have almost as accurately been called The Somnambulist. The fact that four separate women are credited with the screenwriting could be part of the problem: no one vision dominates.

Alicia Vikander walks through her role as Katherine, never making a convincing queen, almost never showing much emotion. She’s married to a mercurial and dangerous man. Powerful people, including the reactionary Bishop Gardiner (played by Simon Russell Beale) oppose her liberal religious beliefs and want to bring her down. Yet she seems strangely unmovable.

Just about the only time she gets her emotions up is when she’s pleading with her friend, Protestant reformer Anne Askew (Erin Doherty), to flee England. Anne, one of England’s earliest female poets, was tortured and burned at the stake for her religious preaching. She does have fire and wit, and what ignites her passion is her belief that common people should be able to read the Bible in English for themselves, rather than be dependent on priests to translate the Latin and tell them what scripture says and means. The contrast between her and the impassive Catherine couldn’t be greater.

So let’s talk about Jude Law, who plays Henry VIII. Corpulent and capricious, he held my gaze every time he was on screen. I could not find the familiar actor in the appearance or increasingly paranoid behavior of this character. If Vikander is not a convincing royal personage, he embodies his position absolutely. He is a king.

Some aspects of the movie are historically accurate, such as Catherine’s close relationships with Henry’s children: Mary (daughter of Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife); Elizabeth (daughter of Anne Boleyn, his second), and Edward (son of Jane Seymour). It acknowledges her authorship of prayer books—the first Englishwoman to have books published under her own name. A prayer she utters in support of Henry, ended up in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer where it remains today.

Alas, some aspects of the story are not historically accurate, including the dramatic yet unconvincing final scene, and a number of episodes created in the hope of increasing the film’s suspense. Given that so much is at stake for the people and causes of England at this time, it’s surprising that the movie, when Henry isn’t in it, is so turgid. Much is made cinematically about Henry’s ulcerating leg wound. Gruesome, but not suspenseful. I can’t recommend this, despite Law’s wonderful performance. Coming to streaming soon; that might be a good choice.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 54%; audiences: 69% (and that may be for the costumes).

Weekend Movie Pick: The Danish Girl

Alicia Vikander, Eddie Redmayne, Danish Girl

Alicia Vikander & Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl

You (like me) may have admired Eddie Redmayne in the TV version of Tess of the D’Urbervilles (2008), in My Week with Marilyn (2011), as Marius in Les Miserables 2012), and as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (Academy Award, 2014). You still may be surprised at how moving his delicate performance is in The Danish Girl (trailer).

I knew vaguely what this movie was about—very “loosely based” on the lives of mid-1920s Danish painters Einar and Gerda Wegener.

Despite their happy and loving marriage, Einar comes to realize he is a woman in a man’s body. “Lili,” as his alter ego is named, is at first a diversion for the pair, then a painful inevitability, and Einar becomes one of the first people to undergo sex-reassignment surgery. Both of them suffer because of Lili’s condition and the strains it places on their love, yet they desperately try to make some kind of relationship work. Yet it’s dangerous to be a pioneer.

While Redmayne is superb, he’s matched in nuanced expressiveness by Swedish actor Alicia Vikander as Gerda. The delicious Matthias Schoenaerts plays Einar’s childhood friend, Hans, with whom a frantic Gerda reconnects while the couple is in Paris. Ben Whishaw also appears, determined to court the shy Lili, or is it Einar he recognizes and pursues?

Not much was known about transgender identities in 1925, and the medical practitioners with whom the couple shares its secret propose predictably draconian measures. But the real drama is watching Redmayne transform himself into a female being. Says Nathan Heller’s Vogue article, “He is no longer recognizable as a 33-year-old man; suddenly, the flash strikes his face and the transformation is complete.”

The film, directed by Tom Hooper with a script by English playwright Lucinda Coxon, is based on the 2000 David Ebershoff novel. Due to Coxon’s diligent research, the movie actually contains numerous factual details not in the book. Tim Gray’s interview with Coxon for Variety reveals that the film is actually closer to what really happened than either the novel or Lili Elbe’s pastiche of a “memoir,” which was, Coxon told Gray, “a work of many hands.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 71%; audiences 75%.