Screening History: “The White Queen” (2013)

When I first watched The White Queen way back in 2013, I’m afraid I wasn’t much of a fan. While I love costume dramas, there just seemed to be something missing from this one, which seemed oddly bloodless compared to Showtime’s The Tudors. However, having recently finished The Crown and feeling myself in need of some royal soap opera, I decided to turn back to it.

I’m glad I did.

The series definitely benefits from a re-watch. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s a truly great series, either as a costume drama or as simply drama, it does its job well. It has characters that are easy to either care about or hate (Rebecca Ferguson and Amanda Hale are particularly fine). The story, while uneven, is compelling. And it has some gorgeous scenery and costumes to look at. The ingredients for a delicious costume drama are all there; they just don’t always hold together well.

The White Queen begins when Elizabeth Woodville (Rivers), daughter of a Lancastrian supporter, puts herself and her two sons in the pathway of the victorious Edward IV (Max Irons). After she meets him, the two find that they fall in love, marry, and ultimately raise a fine brood of children. Unfortunately, all of this unfolds against the backdrop of the Wars of the Roses, which leads, inevitably, to violence, bloodshed, and heartbreak.

While the story begins with Elizabeth, her tale is also interwoven with two other powerful women with their own dynastic ambitions: Anne Neville, daughter of the Kingmaker Richard Neville, and Margaret Beaufort, a scion of the Lancastrians who, driven by what she believes to be God’s will, does everything in her power to ensure that her young son Henry Tudor ascends to the throne as the last viable Lancastrian heir.

There’s no question that The White Queen succeeds when it focuses almost exclusively on these female characters (which is fitting, since that is precisely why Gregory wrote the books in the way that she did). Rebecca Ferguson is captivating as Woodville, ably conveying both her iron will and her vulnerability and her passion. Amanda Hale is her opposite number, and she really brings out the religious zealot part of Margaret’s character. I was also pleasantly surprised how well Fay Marsay did as Anne Neville, bringing to the character a steely ruthlessness that one doesn’t always associated with this queen. Between the three of them, these three women make the show, and it’s worth watching just for them alone.

The men are an altogether more mixed back, particularly Max Irons. He’s pretty enough, but he just doesn’t have the weight or the charisma to play a king like Edward IV, and his shortcomings are all the more glaring when he’s shown with Ferguson. That being said, the actors portraying both George and Richard (David Oakes and Aneurian Barnard) deserve special mention as standing out. I was particularly impressed with Barnard’s rather sensitive portrayal of Richard, arguably the most vilified of any English king. And, of course, credit must be given to James Frain, who has truly established himself as uniquely able to bring to life villainous yet oddly compelling villains (he is also known for his portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in The Tudors and Franklin Mott in True Blood).

The writing and plot are at times quite uneven, and the series only really seems to find its footing after the halfway point. Part of this stems from the fact that Edward dies, and so the drama benefits from no longer being distracted by how bad Max Irons is. Strangely enough, I think that the series would have benefited from having two half seasons rather than a single season often. The time jumps seem very contrived for the most part, and since the characters aren’t seen to age. The bigger problem is that these time jumps also short-circuit character development, so that we don’t really get to see the most important characters changing over time.

The White Queen also suffers from a very limited budget. This is far more noticeable in the few battle scenes, which feel very paltry in comparison to the lushness of the interior scenes and the costumes. In fact, as I watched the series I had to wonder why they didn’t simply jettison them altogether, or at the least choose one to focus on. As it is, the only battlefield death that has even a modicum of emotional impact is Richard’s at Bosworth, though even that is rather undercut by the choppy editing. Nevertheless, there is something powerful about the image of Margaret standing triumphant on the battlefield with her son, her years of scheming and manipulating and bloodshed having finally born fruit.

All in all, The White Queen is a very serviceable costume drama. While it doesn’t quite reach what I feel to be the stellar quality of The Tudors (which it clearly takes for a model) nor the grittiness of Game of Thrones (with which it was clearly designed to compete), it still deserves praise for its attempt. Like Gregory’s novels, the series shows us the substantial role that women have in the making of history. While history books might be full of the great battles between men, with all of their blood and “glory” and “heroism,” in reality it is in the drawing rooms and bedchambers that the fates of nations are decided. In that sense, it’s actually rather a good thing that the series chose to forsake the conventions of the epic–with its grand vistas, its cluttered battlefields, its daring acts of bravery–to focus instead on the power of the domestic.

In the future, I plan to watch both The White Princess, which chronicles the courtship and reign of Elizabeth of York (Woodville’s daughter, played by the inimitable Judy Comer), as well as the Spanish Princess, about the youthful exploits of the woman who would go down in history as one of the two most famous of Henry VIII’s wives, Katherine of Aragon.

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