Jude Law plays the scandalous Tudor king Henry VIII, who loved to behead his wives (including the infamous Anne Boleyn, the mother of the future Queen Elizabeth I), and Alicia Vikander plays his sixth and last legitimate wife, Katherine Parr. The costumed historical drama Firebrand supposedly offers a distinctly feminocentric and even feminist view of the darkness of medieval patriarchy, but… Jude Law still outplays Alicia Vikander.

Title Firebrand
Genre historical drama
Director Karim Ainuz
Starring Alicia Vikander, Jude Law, Erin Doherty, Eddie Marsan, Sam Riley, Simon Russell Beale and others
Studios MBK Productions, FilmNation Entertainment, Brouhaha Entertainment, Magnolia Mae Films
Timing 2 hours
Year 2023
Website IMDb

Let’s talk about the title. Both Firebrand, which translates to “instigator” (in this case, “instigator”), and The Queen’s Gambit (the original title of the novel on which the film is based) seem to not quite match what is happening on the screen. The main character is the queen, not the king. The only thing known from official history is that Henry VIII, who suffered from obesity and gout in his adult years, died of gangrene in his leg when poisonous rot entered his bloodstream and affected his internal organs. And his last wife, who at that time was already on the verge of execution on charges of adultery and religious heresy, was “just lucky” to survive her husband’s tyrant, so this fictional story speculates on how it might have actually happened and with what nuances.

"Гамбіт королеви" / Firebrand
Still from the movie Firebrand

In other words, the authors seem to be suggesting that Katherine Parr, who skillfully (as we can see from the film) flattered the despotic king (a total abuser and self-satisfied sadist) and skillfully manipulated his sick ego (obviously under the fear of the axe, which her fragile neck hypothetically felt almost every day), was actually more radical than it seemed at first glance. And she lived not only with a sense of permanent fear of the heavy boot of her cruel, self-righteous husband (“boot” is a metaphor, because literally Henry VIII wore small, thin satin shoes that tightly and tightly stuck to his swollen feet), but also with feelings of hatred, rage, and even revenge. In other words, “instigator” is about some kind of idea, some kind of plan, some kind of goal, and some kind of conspiracy. But in fact, on the contrary, the conspiracy here matures around the queen, not at her suggestion (and an affect is not a plan).

Кадр з фільму "Гамбіт королеви" / Firebrand
Still from the movie Firebrand

Similarly, the even more complementary title “The Queen’s Gambit” seems to be not entirely adequate, hinting that Katherine Parr was playing a complex, thoughtful game from the very beginning, an intellectual, far-sighted chess game to trip up her opponent (which is how the word “gambit” is translated). But here it is worth diving into the chess rules in more detail. After all, a gambit is a move of openings, that is, the very first starting move, which is characterized by a sacrifice (mostly a pawn), so as not to wait and stretch the rubber with neat permutations, but to immediately sharpen the game “from the doorstep”. And the sharpest of these openings is the kings’ gambit.

Кадр з фільму "Гамбіт королеви" / Firebrand
Still from the movie Firebrand

And in this reading of the title, it is worth going back to Elizabeth I, to whom Katherine Parr was a stepmother (a good stepmother), because it is not by chance that the story is told from the girl’s (at that time still a teenager) perspective. Then, years later, Elizabeth became one of the most powerful English monarchs, her rule bringing the country a “golden age” of prosperity and enlightenment after very long dark times. But her start (her beginning, her debut) took place in her youth, when the extremely intelligent and deeply emancipated (but naturally unambitious) Katherine Parr was not just a replacement for her executed mother, but a mentor and teacher, a trigger for hatred of patriarchy (and men in general): Elizabeth I never married), as the young woman witnessed humiliation, pressure, and outright abuse from her father towards Katherine, and a trigger for her desire to change the old way of life.

Кадр з фільму "Гамбіт королеви" / Firebrand
Still from the movie Firebrand

So from the point of view of chess, the plot of the painting really takes on a completely different meaning. Yes, Katherine Parr herself did not win anything (she survived Henry, but the following year, having remarried, she died of postpartum complications). However, her sacrifice (here it is appropriate to say that the queen sacrificed herself, not a pawn), her gambit, laid the foundation for another game, a truly victorious game by Elizabeth, who did reshape the patriarchal system in her own way.

Кадр з фільму "Гамбіт королеви" / Firebrand
Still from the movie Firebrand

Given this multi-step subtext, through the prism of the chess metaphor, the film’s plot and almost every scene sound and look different, more thoughtful and weighty than they seemed. And thus, the story, which, at first glance, could be viewed (pardon the tautology) and read as a rather primitive (and, thanks to its naturalism, rather disgusting) record of the most vile manifestations of male abuse, from psychological to physical and sexual violence, is transformed into an act of very far-sighted retribution and revenge (which, however, remain off-screen). And even the scene where the queen has to apply healing maggots to the stinking ulcer on his swollen, rotten leg by order of the king, also becomes an allusion: the heroine takes the maggot with her fingers exactly as one takes chess pieces and gently places it on the dying flesh, like a chessboard… Although from a purely artistic point of view, Jude Law still outplayed Alicia Vikander.