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).


Jude Law, GeniusDirector Michael Grandage’s movie Genius (trailer) about the relationship between legendary Scribners & Sons editor Maxwell Perkins and flamboyant author Thomas Wolfe had received generally tepid reviews. (while I’m delighted an editor is finally receiving screen time!).

Wolfe was an author whose moods, enthusiasms, and output were not easily corralled, even by someone with Perkins’s experience. After all, he had already brought works to the public from other writers with outsized personalities and personal difficulties–notably Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

It’s easy to imagine the slammed doors that would greet an author today who showed up with a 5000-page manuscript as Wolfe did with his second book, Of Time and the River. The challenging task of turning this behemoth into a publishable manuscript epitomizes the editor’s dilemma: “Are we really making books better,” Perkins says, “or just making them different?” Getting 5000 pages down to a still-hefty 900 made Wolfe’s work different, for sure. And better, at least in the sense of more likely to be read.

Colin Firth, as Perkins, keeps his hat on during almost the entirety of the movie, symbolic perhaps of how his character tries to keep a lid on his difficult author. Jude Law as Wolfe is by turns outrageous, contrite, drunk, hostile, and sentimental. Pretty much like the novels, actually. His performance is consistently inconsistent and always interesting. He shows Wolfe as a man with a lot of words bottled up inside him who can’t always control the way they pour out.

It’s odd to see a mostly British and Australian cast playing so many titans of American literary history, including Perkins and Wolfe, Guy Pearce as Fitzgerald, and Dominic West as Hemingway. (The Hemingway scene required an ending credit for “marlin fabricator.”) The women in the lives of the protagonists are Laura Linney as Mrs Perkins, perfect as always, and Nicole Kidman, who believably portrays the obsessed Mrs. Bernstein. She’s left her husband to cultivate and promote the much younger Wolfe and has her own flair for the dramatic. The performances make the movie worth seeing.

The National Book Award-winning Perkins biography by A. Scott Berg was transformed into a screenplay by John Logan. New Yorker critic Richard Brody dings the script for its departures from the detailed and more richly peopled original, including the book’s fuller explanation for the rupture between Wolfe and Scribners. Brody says a lawsuit and Wolfe’s unsavory political views played a part, and leaving them out does seem a mistake.

Portraying in cinema an intrinsically intellectual and abstract enterprise is difficult (The Man Who Knew Infinity struggles with the same challenge). Like me, reviewer Glenn Kenny at Roger Ebert.com apparently had not read the book, so did not have Brody’s reservations. Kenny found “the exchanges between editor and author exhilarating. Logan’s script . . . is invested in the craft of words like few other movies nowadays, even those ostensibly about writers.”

Wolfe blasted onto the American literary scene like a runaway train and departed before he could accomplish a judicious application of the brakes. Yet, he eventually realized who’d kept him on course, as his moving deathbed letter attests.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 48%; audiences: 56%.