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Alicia Vikander, Jude Law Talk Surprising Ending of Henry VIII Movie ‘Firebrand’

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[This story contains spoilers for the film Firebrand.]

The fates of Henry VIII’s wives are well known, with a particularly macabre children’s rhyme dedicated to their untimely ends. Less committed to the cultural zeitgeist is much about the wives, themselves, especially Catherine Parr, the final wife known for being the one that survived the English monarch.

Filmmaker Karim Aïnouz dedicates his film Firebrand to imagining how Parr outmaneuvered her husband while becoming a published author and seeding more progressive ideas within the monarchy.

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The film is not a typical costume drama. Instead of focusing less on pomp, circumstance, and place intrigue, the drama centers on the domestic realities of Henry and Catherine’s relationship.

Ahead of the film’s June 14 theatrical release, stars Alicia Vikander and Jude Law talk about Henry VIII and Catherina Parr’s relationship and Firebrand‘s surprising (but also not-so-surprising) ending.

Alicia, out of Cannes, where the film premiered, you talked about how films about Henry VIII and his wives have focused on the ones who met horrible endings. What was it about telling the story of Catherine Parr, the wife who survived him, that interested you?

VIKANDER It seemed like there was no focus on Catherine Parr [in films and TV or in schools].  I was a bit embarrassed that I hadn’t really heard anything about this woman. One huge thing to me was that she had been an author and that she published in her own name, the first woman to ever do so, with quite controversial views that she had both politically and religiously. She managed to be that progressive, while being in this extremely abusive relationship and had to keep herself alive and outlive Henry. That was definitely a big part of why I was excited to show this particular piece of history. I think it’s also proof, sadly, that we humans just focus on the grim past, the spectacle. It is terrifying.

LAW It’s more interesting, somehow, to tell the story of this brutal man and how he killed someone, or this brutal man and how he drove someone to death. Rather than this brutal man and how someone outmaneuvered him and survived him. A book I read actually was by Lady Antonia Fraser. It’s called The Wives of Henry VII. That little inversion made it suddenly more interesting because it was more specifically about him as a player throughout. It was Karim [Aïnouz, the director] who originally said to read what [we] want, but don’t just read male historians, read the female perspective because that’s the emphasis of the story.

There were centuries’ worth of research materials you could have pulled from. How did you go about your research for your roles?

LAW We also found that the more reading we did, the actual facts kept getting repeated, and that there weren’t that many of them. What these historians have done is weave their own interpretations in between. As soon as I started recognizing that as a pattern, we were suddenly free in a way to also have our own interpretation of what may have happened.

VIKANDER Even regarding to the end of this film, you did realize the more you read that you just don’t know. It happened 500 years ago, so it all is kind of a fabrication and fantasy of this time that we were all very interested in.

LAW Equally, a lot of the books have been written by white males. I’m not saying they hero-worship Henry, but [they are] people who are just obsessed by him. But for them to say “this [the ending of the film] would never have happened, Henry would never have let that happen.” You think, well, wait a minute, we know for a fact they didn’t reveal her was dead for a week, we know that his will was added to, extensively, on his death, we know how sick he was, and we know that no one was called to religiously put him to sleep because no one wanted to admit that he was dying because he would have had you killed. There are all these areas that you think, well, let’s interpret this, let’s play out the drama.

Henry VIII is at the end of his life in the movie and, between his ailments and his size, it is a physically demanding role. How did you embody that physicality?

LAW I can’t remember how much I knew when I took on the part. I had to read up and really fully understand just how unhealthy he was at the very end, although he was my age. It became really important to me the pain he was in and these deep vein ulcers that he had been suffering from for 10 years prior affected his moods daily and his state of mind, but also what he could and couldn’t do. It wasn’t like I wanted to lose myself in prosthetics. It was more important we get the shape of the silhouette right. So, I grew this big beard and the size was really helped by the voluminous costumes and the suit I wore underneath with the big legs with sores on. It was all just trying to find a sort of truth in how he may have maneuvered. He was still a threat and this physical disintegration was affecting his temperament and made him more of a threat to Catherine.

This is a costume drama. Alicia, how did the intricate costumes affect your performance?

VIKANDER Almost with every film that I make, even if it’s a very naturalistic, present-day drama, when I go into my first costume fitting it’s when the first bit of magic appears. You don’t know really what you’re searching for and then you put something on and then you’re like, “Oh, there the character is.” It’s kind of a bit of a surprise. I don’t know if it’s my dance background, but I approach parts quite physically. And what happens with costumes is I start start to move like how I imagined this person moves. [This period of costume] hinders your body, especially as a woman. It’s not very tight around your waist but what surprised all of us women, so it pulls back your shoulder blades. All of us women had the same issue, we had extreme pain back in our neck. We went an all saw osteopaths while filming. 

Catherine was married to a tyrant and an abuser, but it was still a marriage. How did you come to understand how Catherine felt about Henry?

VIKANDER You have this one figure that you know a lot about, but you do know that these two people were together for a certain amount of years. There is this all-powerful man with his temperament and his brutality, but they did spend time just in bed together. What did they talk about? We wanted to show the domestic side of this story.

I do want to talk about the ending of this film, where Catherine, after being imprisoned for possible treason, is alone with Henry and is the person who ends his life. What was your reactions when you first read the ending?

VIKANDER Karim, the first time I met him, he was like, I just didn’t see there was any other possible ending. I was like, that’s probably actually how I’d have felt.

LAW Honestly, I questioned until we got to doing it.

VIKANDER I did believe in it but I didn’t know how we’d do it. It was the last scene that we shot the last day.

LAW You were pinning me down and I was trying my hardest to buck you off but you just stayed on there for three minutes to kill me.

VIKANDER We had done research asking doctors, “How long does it actually take to [to strangle someone]?” It’s so bloody hard.

LAW I was scared of people saying, “Oh, where’s the proof? What’s the proof.” But, in truth, he did die, she survived and we are championing her with this. What it is, to me, is just symbolic of that trial. And, excuse my English, but fuck him. It’s a little bit like Inglorious Basterds giving the opportunity to a Jewish shoulder just shoot Hitler in the face. The final solution had already taken place in that story. It was saying we’re gonna rectify everything and wave a magic wand it was saying, “Fuck you!” I think it was our way of doing that. It was saying: She won, she beat him. He was left this decomposing old toad in his bed.

VIKANDER That’s the beauty of art and cinema, as long as you do it with delicacy and truth then it didn’t feel like — what’s the word?

LAW A cop out.


LAW You look at the delicate way, [Karim] sets it up, which is so brilliant. What Karim reminds you of is [the thinking] that: She’s a woman, she’s not a threat. We can let her into the room by herself. It’s so patronizing. Every step is about the male assumption that this woman is feeble, this woman has been beaten, we broke her.

VIKANDER They think they locked her in with him. Actually, it was the opposite.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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