In Britain, schoolchildren learning about Tudor history are taught a handy rhyme to remember the order of King Henry VIII’s six wives: “Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived.”
Hollywood has for decades been transfixed by the “beheaded” and “died” bits — essentially, the stories about women suffering — but what moviegoers are rarely reminded of is the wife who outlived Henry. In Karim Aïnouz’s hotly anticipated “Firebrand,” it’s the notorious Tudor king’s final companion, Katherine Parr, who finally takes center stage.
“What’s mostly been dramatized are the wives who didn’t make it,” says Swedish star Alicia Vikander, who plays the surviving queen opposite Jude Law’s ailing monarch. “[When I read the script] I immediately thought, ‘Huh, isn’t it interesting that most people know more about the other wives.’ It’s almost like people are drawn to quite grim stories.”
The more Vikander, an Oscar-winner for “The Danish Girl,” read up on Parr and her experience, the more bewildered she became about the grisly narrative surrounding Henry VIII’s wives. “I was like, ‘How could [Parr] not be more known?’ Especially considering that, yes, she survived more years than the other ones, but she was also the first woman under her own name in British history to get published,” says Vikander.
The learned and curious Parr published a number of religious texts beginning in 1545. But as detailed in “Firebrand,” her quest for knowledge and passion for debate almost cost her her life when she was accused of heresy. Scholars beware: Aïnouz’s particular rendition of history has a revisionist edge that bestows the tired annals of history with a modern angle. (“It was about having artistic freedom to make a strong story and to surprise people,” explains Vikander.)
Ultimately, it was Aïnouz’s depth and vision that “drew [her] attention.” “I was in Cannes and I saw ‘The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao’ and I was so curious [about him],” says the actor.
“We didn’t grow up with British history in the same sense,” she says, reflecting on both their backgrounds — Vikander from Sweden, and Aïnouz from Brazil. This “outsider” status allowed for a new way of approaching the subject matter.
“If I were telling a very Swedish story, there may be a part of me that feels some sort of obligation to honor a story that feels like a part of my culture,” she explains. “It can be a good thing when you don’t have that reference as much, because you come from another perspective.”
The world of costume drama, however, is familiar terrain for Vikander, whose big breakout came with the 2012 Swedish film “A Royal Affair,” in which she played a young queen married to a mad king. That same year came “Anna Karenina,” which was her first time working opposite Jude Law, and then World War I drama “Testament of Youth.”
To better understand the Tudor period, Aïnouz recruited experts who had actually lived like Tudors for six months, though not in court but rather on working farms — a “very primitive” and decidedly unglamorous experience that’s also rarely seen on screen. “It made us want to strip back and make something that feels very raw and authentic,” adds Vikander. “I loved that he wanted to undress the costume drama.”
If the idea of a pared-back Tudor story set in the court of Henry VIII doesn’t quite jive on paper, rest assured it’s masterfully executed, but never heavy-handed: rather, it’s in the movie’s small details, such as Vikander’s Katherine rubbing coal into her teeth to look like a villager before sneaking out, or Law’s Henry bantering with his posse of advisors as though they’re in an episode of “Entourage.” “Firebrand” feels human in a way that many movies from the period have failed to.
Of working opposite Law in a role unlike anything he’s taken on before (the chiselled star completely disappears under Henry’s prosthetic jowls), Vikander highlights Law’s skill as a character actor. “I think more and more, he gets to have parts where he really gets to show that.”
Meanwhile, of her own artistic ambitions, Vikander says she’s less focused on Oscar-baiting roles and more concerned with who she’s in the trenches with. “Maybe it’s about getting old or growing up, but you go through stages and — especially when I became a mother — I [prefer] to work with people that I highly admire.”
Don’t count her out from leading another action franchise, though. Vikander says she was crushed when plans for the “Tomb Raider” sequel fizzled out. MGM lost the rights to the property in May 2022 as it hadn’t yet greenlit a new instalment.
“I mean, I thought we were very much [good to go]; we had a director and writer. But yeah, for me, that was another one of those childhood dreams — to portray an action character was awesome, and beyond what I ever thought I would do. And I think the physical part is something that I really enjoyed. So, yeah, if another opportunity like that came again, I’ll be interested.”
“Firebrand” has sold out internationally, with Prime Video swooping for a U.K. deal along with select international markets. CAA is shopping U.S. rights on the film in Cannes.