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Screening History: "The White Princess" (2017)

Warning: Some spoilers for the series follow.

When I first watched The White Princess (which I, unfortunately, didn’t finish the first time around), I was a little underwhelmed by Jodie Comer’s performance. However, having seen her in Killing Eve (where she is nothing short of brilliant), I thought I’d see if the series merited another try.

I wasn’t disappointed.

This miniseries focuses on Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter Lizzie who, despite her love for the dead Yorkist king Richard III, must instead marry the man who defeated him on the battlefield at Bosworth. As the series continues, she finds herself in two directions, as she must decide whether she will throw in her lot with her husband and their growing family or whether she will side instead with her mother and the remaining Yorkist affinity. In the end, she must make a terrible decision that truly shatters her heart, even as it finally means that she and her family can have peace.

One of the first things to note is that it’s an almost entirely different cast than its predecessor. With one exception–as the Duchess Cecily–there are no repeats from The White Princess. At first this is a little distracting, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made that they would go with older people. In fact, one of the drawbacks of The White Queen was that, as the years passed within the narrative, it got less and less believable to see these characters not at all looking their diegetic ages.

Further, The White Princess definitely benefits from having an older cast. Michelle Fairley’s Margaret Beaufot strides through her scenes with a steely, austere grace very different than that she brought to the role of Catelyn Stark in Game of Thrones. Essie Davis is similarly great as an aging Elizabeth Woodville, a woman who remains so committed to her loyalty to the York cause that she’s willing to put her own daughter’s life at risk for it. And, upon rewatch, I am amazed at how well Comer does with this role, amply showing Elizabeth’s transformation from naïve young woman to ruthless politician.

Though some might dismiss The White Princess as something of an epilogue to the story recounted in The White Queen, but that sells the story far too short. For one thing, the series manages to avoid the shortcomings of the book, which basically amounted to Elizabeth striding around her various palaces while Henry goes off and fights against the risings and usurpers. Here, we get multiple points of view, ranging from Elizabeth’s scheming from her prison at Bermondsey, the Duchess Margaret of Burgundy’s lending her support to various potential usurpers, or Lizzie’s own struggles to reconcile the feuding factions of her family. The series is well-written enough, and the acting strong enough, that it helps to support some of the rather questionable historical choices (more on that in a moment).

If that earlier series was about two women fighting for each of their children to inherit the throne, this one is about what happens when the battle is done and a victor has emerged. How does one go about rebuilding a kingdom that has been in the midst of a civil war that has torn apart both the royal family and the land itself? For that matter, how do those who are supposed to be doing the crucial work do so when there are those who refuse to move on from the past? In this case, the success of the dynasty depends, not on the past and all of its recriminations, but on the ability of the new king and queen to bind up the wounds that separate them and, ultimately, to put their parents firmly in the background.

Chief among these are the two mothers. While it was easy to identify with Elizabeth Woodville in The White Queen, her scheming starts to wear very thin by about the midpoint of this series, precisely because it endangers her daughter and her grandson. Davis does a lot with the role, but it does get frustrating to watch Elizabeth try to strong-arm Lizzie into surrendering her throne to her brother. That being said, there is a genuine connection between Davis and Comer.

On the flip side of the coin, Margaret is still haunted by her ordering of the murder of the Princes in the Tower (an argument that the books make that I find incredibly implausible). This ultimately leads to her estrangement from Henry and yet, oddly enough, also leads her to grow closer–in spirit if not in fact–to Lizzie, who must also make terrible choices regarding the safety and well-being of her children.

All in all, The White Princess is significantly stronger than The White Queen. Because the performances are so much more uniform than in its predecessor, it’s significantly easier to feel more involved and invested in them, rather than growing annoyed with adolescents storming about and arguing with one another. There are moments of genuine pathos, such as when Teddy, Earl of Warwick is executed, and the chemistry between Henry (Jacob Collins-Levy, infinitely better than Max Irons at portraying royalty) and Elizabeth is genuine, and it’s easy to grow involved in their romance.

If I have a complaint about the series, it’s the same that I have with the book. I just find it strains credulity to think that Perkin Warbeck was actually the lost Prince Richard. I tend to believe that he was who he confessed to be, a son of a boatmaker in Tournai, and that the man who was executed at Tyburn was Perkin and not a changeling (in the series, he is swapped out and the real Richard is given a royal execution by sword while Lizzie watches). Even more incredibly, Margaret of Burgundy actually sets up shop in London to continue plotting against Henry. It strains credulity to think that a duchess a.) would put herself at risk this way and b.) would go so long undiscovered.

Those gripes aside, I truly did enjoy The White Princess, and I cannot wait to begin its successor The Spanish Princess. Stay tuned!

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.

Reading History: “The Last Tudor” (Philippa Gregory)

I’ve been reading Philippa Gregory’s books since around 2005, when I picked up The Other Boleyn Girl. I haven’t yet read all of then, but I’ve read enough to have a solid sense of her style and her interests and author, as well as her strengths and weaknesses as a writer of historical fiction.

Her most recent outing, The Last Tudor, puts Gregory’s puts all of that on display.

Broken into three parts, the book centers on the three Grey sisters: Jane, Katherine, and Mary. Jane, of course, has gone down in history as the Nine Days Queen, executed by Queen Mary as a result of her father’s foolish rebellion. Katherine, equally foolish, married a Seymour without first gaining the permission from the Queen, a crime also committed by her sister Mary, who marries a commoner and also finds herself imprisoned.

Jane, in keeping with the traditions of depicting her in historical fiction, emerges as something of a prig, convinced of her own wisdom, erudition, and piety. However, her self-assurance doesn’t keep her from being manipulated by others–notably her parents–into usurping the throne when her cousin Edward VI. Though frequently insufferable, Gregory does capture moments of genuine pathos with this quintessential Protestant martyr.

If only the same could be said of her younger sister Katherine. Though Katherine was surely a complicated and tragic character, in Gregory’s rather unsuitable hand she becomes an insufferable ninny, so swept up by her passion for the young Edward Seymour that she marries him without Queen Elizabeth’s permission, earning both of them imprisonment. As a character, she seems quite the dunce, especially as she moves from bad decision to bad decision. She can’t quite seem to wrap her head around why it might be that Elizabeth would see her as a threat, despite the fact that she constantly draws attention to the fact of her own superiority to her cousin.

It is Mary, ironically, who emerges as the most interesting and insightful character, though she also has the least to do. After her ill-considered marriage to Thomas Keyes, she is shuttled between various keepers. While her chapters are often witty and sardonic, the downside is that most of what she relates has to do with the travails of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. As a result, these chapters tend to drag.

All three sisters’ narrations are marred by one of Gregory’s increasingly prevalent tics: repetition. We endlessly hear about how one of the sisters might become the center of an effort to replace Elizabeth, how each of them is better than Elizabeth, how they all hate Elizabeth. I would probably have much more patience for Gregory’s consistent foibles if she didn’t have such a naked vendetta against Elizabeth I. Now, I’ll be the first to say that I’ve long been a fan of QE I, even though I recognize that she has a lot to answer for. Still, Gregory takes this to extremes, and she clearly believes that Elizabeth was responsible for the death of Robert Dudley’s wife Amy Robsart. Given that historians now agree that Elizabeth was most likely innocent, this is at best farfetched and at worst deliberately misleading.

It’s not surprising that the three Grey sisters would see their cousin the queen through their own perspective, but it does strain credulity that three members of the ruling dynasty would not be a little more canny about their life choices. Having been raised to be conscious of their royal connections through their grandmother Queen Mary, they surely would have realized that their marriages had consequences far beyond their personal happiness. What’s more, it’s quite frustrating to read them making these foolish choices, especially as, if they had been wiser and cannier about maneuvering through court politics, they might have seen their children on the throne rather than enduring years of grueling captivity.

In the last several Gregory novels, we hear incessantly about how infertile the Tudors are, how paranoid they are because of this, and how they will willingly punish (or kill) anyone who they perceive as a threat. While there is something to this, and while I am aware that Elizabeth could be quite malicious, Gregory’s lack of subtlety mars what might have been a nuanced exploration of the truly tragic fates of three interesting figures in the Tudor family.

I suppose my greatest frustration with this novel was the fact that the story could have been told better, either by Gregory or someone else. The author’s note suggests that she is moving on from the Tudor and I, for one, must reluctantly admit that this is certainly a good thing.

Reading History: “The Taming of the Queen” and Donald Trump

In the wake of November 8th, it’s really difficult–nay, impossible–to not read and watch everything produced in the years leading up to Trump’s electoral victory through the prism of the dystopian perspective he brings to the world. As a trained historicist–that is, one who views all cultural artifacts as existing in an ongoing relationship with the social and political world in which they are located–it is both fascinating and disconcerting to begin piecing together a historical tapestry, even while living in the middest of this pivotal historical moment.

As I was finishing up my reading of Philippa Gregory’s novel The Taming of the Queen, which follows the marriage of Kateryn Parr to Henry VIII, it was hard not to view it as a precursor to the dark times in which we now live. While I don’t think that Gregory necessarily had the conflict between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on her mind when she wrote this novel, it’s hard, in hindsight, not to see it as at least tapping into the rumblings and seismic shifts that have been detectable for quite some time now. How could you not, when its central characters a brilliant woman who is erudite, learned, and intelligent and a blustering, capricious, and cruel man whose only true investment remains in himself and his own pleasures?

In Gregory’s always-capable hands, Parr emerges from these pages as a fiery, passionate, intelligent woman, one who is as fiercely in love with the dashing Thomas Seymour, a bit of a rakish character who nevertheless has managed to steal the heart of our heroine. However, despite her love of this man, she knows that she has no choice but to give him up once she finds herself caught up in the net of Henry’s court and his own rapacious desires. She knows that if she were to deny the king, she might very well meet the fate of so many others (both men and women) who fell afoul of Henry and attempted to deny him what he desired.

In the world of the Tudors, the monarch’s wishes and demands are the only thing that matters, and gratifying them is the surest way to the pinnacle of power–or to the absolute depths of defeat and death on the headsman’s block. It is largely because of this that Kateryn must continue to wheedle and cajole this aging tyrant, both so that she can continue pursuing her ardent intellectual passions but also, and just importantly, so that she can save herself from the death that met two of his other wives (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard). The novel refers again and again to the jewels, furs, and belongings of those former queens, and these material remains of the past continue to haunt Katern as she must struggle against those in the court (Stephen Gardiner foremost among them) who would love nothing more than to bring her down and destroy her.

Indeed, it is precisely her intellectual acumen that nearly proves her undoing. Utterly dedicated to the rising tide of Protestantism, Kateryn soon associates herself with the foremost reformers in the country, inviting the fieriest of Protestant preachers to preach in her rooms. She also begins doing her own translations, and Gregory shows her to be a woman who manages to find a balance between her intellect and her faith. While this at first pleases Henry–who always did fancy himself a scholar–all too soon it proves to be her weak spot, as her outspokenness alienates her.

It is only when she thoroughly abases herself before him–allowing him to beat and humiliate her in the most degrading ways–that she is saved from the headsman. From that point on, she must bury all of her intellectual, romantic, and spiritual inclinations under a veneer of submissiveness, and it is only Henry’s timely death that releases her from her chains.

Henry emerges as very much a man cut in the mold of what we have seen of Trump. Utterly capricious, vengeful, gluttonous, and venal, this Henry sees himself as a grand pupper-master, determined to keep a stranglehold on the power that has been his for so many years. He turns against anyone who dares to whisper a word of opposition to him, and indeed it is only his abrupt death that saves the Duke Thomas Howard–a man who has served Henry since the beginning of his reign–from the headsman’s block. Indeed, some time ago the noted feminist scholar Susan Bordo (author of the excellent book The Creation of Anne Boleyn) drew out some of these uncanny similarities between the 16th Century monarch and our current President-Elect.

Yet, despite the clouds of impending darkness that seem to have obliterated any hope for an enlightened future in which women’s voices are recognized and celebrated as valid, the ending of Gregory’s novel does provide some solace and hope for a better future. As Kateryn writes:

“I believe that to be a free woman is to be both passionate and intelligent; and I am a free woman at last.”

Though these lines provide narrative closure, they also remind us of the fierce spirit that motivates women both past and present, and that beyond the darkest days there still lies a glimmer, however faint, of hope.