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‘Firebrand’ gives Henry VIII’s sixth (and final) wife her moment to shine

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — After “Too many years lost in history,” as they memorably sing in “Six: The Musical,” the wives of Henry VIII continue to receive their belated due, with the latest example being “Firebrand,” devoted to his sixth and final spouse, Katherine Parr. Alicia Vikander and Jude Law anchor this handsome exercise in historical fiction, which meanders a bit before nicely paying off at the end.

History, the opening narration cleverly notes, is largely devoted to men and war, forcing us to putty in gaps about the rest – including, in this case, the women who passed through King Henry VIII’s decadent life.

Novelist Elizabeth Fremantle provided such filler with “Queen’s Gambit: A Novel of Katherine Parr” (not to be confused with Netflix’s chess series), which provides the backbone for this look at Parr (Vikander) as she dealt with an “aging and ailing” Henry (Law, bloated and bearded for the occasion). Already erratic, his cantankerous temper was further fueled by his infected foot, awful enough that people cover their mouths when exposed to the stench from it.

In the early going, Parr has seemingly found a kind of equilibrium in Henry’s court, serving as a doting mother to her stepchildren, overseeing the castle as Regent while the king adventures in France and insisting that no, honest, she has everything under control.

“He’s changed,” she says. “He listens to me.”

Yet upon Henry’s return, the queen finds herself in considerable jeopardy, in part thanks to her friendship with Protestant preacher Anne Askew (Erin Doherty), an outspoken critic of Henry’s church; and her close relationship with Thomas Seymour (Sam Riley), the brother of Henry’s third wife Jane.

Faced with Henry’s mercurial behavior, and the suspicions of his heretic-hunting bishop (Simon Russell Beale), Parr is left playing a dangerous game in which time itself becomes a key player, given assumptions that the king’s various illnesses will claim him before he can turn her into another casualty of his reign.

Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz captures the dimly lit gruesomeness of the era (the limitations of medieval medicine won’t have anybody pining for Tudorcare), which brings texture to all the palace intrigue. Foremost, “Firebrand” seeks to portray Parr as more than just a number, possessing the skills of an accomplished writer in addition to navigating the politics surrounding her position. (The screenplay is by sisters Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth, with additional writing by Rosanne Flynn.)

Speaking volumes with her gaze, Vikander is a shrewd choice for that role, although for much of the movie her low-key demeanor can’t help but be overwhelmed a bit by Law’s lusty vulgarity and emotional outbursts.

The Tudor dynasty has long served as a source of fascination for movies and TV. Probably destined for a short stay in theaters, “Firebrand” plays like a relatively minor if generally worthy addition to that long filmography, training the spotlight on a woman who understood that keeping her wits about her, at all times, was the surest way to keep her head.

“Firebrand” premieres June 14 in US theaters. It’s rated R.

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