When his agent first suggested that Karim Aïnouz direct an adaptation of Elizabeth Fremantle’s “Queen’s Gambit,” a historical novel about Katherine Parr, the sixth and final wife of Henry VIII, he thought she was joking. The Brazilian director of “The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão” wasn’t a natural choice to bring 16th century England to life on screen. For one thing, Aïnouz didn’t really know anything about the oft-married monarch.
“I could barely identify who Henry VIII was, and I’m not into the monarchy,” he says on the eve of the Cannes premiere of “Firebrand,” the movie he made from Fremantle’s book. “I’m not into British history. I was very puzzled.”
But he started to read up on Tudor history and on Parr and he became captivated by the queen who outmaneuvered her husband to survive his tumultuous final days on the throne. There was something about her that he couldn’t shake. For one thing, Parr was brilliant, well-read and the first woman to publish an original work under her own name in English in England — “The Lamentation of a Sinner” (bet you never read it!).
“There was something about Catherine that had the same DNA as characters that I’ve done before,” Aïnouz says. “A lot of my movies are about female characters and a lot of those people are in a position of resistance or resilience. I admired her.”
Plus, Aïnouz felt that his own background gave him insight into what it must have been like to live under a tyrannical sovereign.
“I grew up in a dictatorship,” he says. “I was born in 1966 in Brazil. I have no interest in looking at historical figures in an idealized way.”
And that’s certainly what he offers up on screen. This is a kingdom filled with mud and grime, and unwashed nobles and common folk alike. It’s a very life-sized version of monarchy. Critics and audiences at Cannes seemed to like the gritty portrait of court life that Aïnouz depicts in “Firebrand.” Alicia Vikander who stars as Parr and Jude Law, virtually unrecognizable as the obese and paranoid Henry VIII, joined him at the festival where the film received an eight-minute standing ovation. “Firebrand” is still looking for U.S. distribution, but based on the reception, it should have no trouble finding a studio interested in pushing it into the awards race.
How did you get involved with “Firebrand”?
I’ve been making movies in Brazil for 20 years. After the election of Jair Bolsonaro, all the public funding for cinema in my country was cancelled. At the same time, “Invisible Life,” my last movie, got a lot of attention in the U.S. and the U.K. So I started thinking of doing things that were outside of Brazil because there was nothing for me there. I was looking for a new adventure.
The naturalization of the violence in the court of Henry VIII was really shocking and felt remote. But there was something personally involving in Katherine’s story. My mother was a single mother and she raised me alone. And she made her living as a professor and was obsessed with education. I think in the case of Katherine, she was very focused on educating her step children. And she was also a writer, who published books. She was a very modern woman. And that was important because what’s the point of doing something about the 1500s if it’s not relevant to today?
Were you trying to make a feminist statement with the film?
As a man, I don’t think I can say it’s a feminist film. But it’s an anti-patriarchal film. It’s very much informed by the moment we are living in.
We need to examine not just patriarchy, but also monarchies and the rise of these authoritarian regimes. These are a consequence of patriarchy. There are lot of Henrys out there these days — there’s a Henry in Turkey, there’s a Henry in Russia, there’s Trump. In our film, Katherine not only survives, but she also helps to end a cycle of violence. Eventually England will be led by a woman, Elizabeth I.
The film really does immerse viewers in the paranoia and backstabbing that must have been a daily part of living under the rule of a mad king. Was that something you were trying to convey?
I didn’t want to do a period drama. I wanted to do a period thriller. I saw this movie as the classic trope of a woman trapped in a castle with a monster. If you really look at the idea of a king, it’s such nonsense. At the time, it made sense. People were supposed to have this blue blood and Mary was supposed to have given birth after being impregnated by a divine spirit. There’s so many movies made about history that are very antiseptic and unreal. I wanted to render the past in a tangible way. I wanted there to be animals around and smells, so you feel like you’re right there with all these people. There’s something about period dramas that are just alienating to viewers, particularly a younger generation. I wanted to make something that was political, but not polite.
A lot of this story hinges on the rise of Protestantism and debates about whether or not people should read the Bible in Latin or in their own language. I don’t think about these issues at all, but obviously it was a matter of life and death to people like Katherine Parr. Was it important to accept these characters on their own terms?
This was the hardest part of the project for me. I’m an atheist. Faith and religion don’t matter too much to me. So we had to surrender ourselves to our characters and the story. But the question is how do you make that relevant? You can’t say, “I want to make a movie about the Protestant Reformation.” Who is going to want to watch that? The challenge was how do I make this relatable? So I saw it in terms of a fight for autonomy and freedom of thought. They were questioning authority.
Was the political part of the story what interested you and not the religious element?
It was only the political part that interested me. Katherine was fighting for freedom. That was what was so threatening to a person like Henry.
How did you cast the film? I would not have thought of Jude Law as Henry VIII.
Russell Crowe, right? I thought of Russell Crowe as Henry. Jude was not the name that came to mind from the beginning. But I thought this would be interesting for Jude. We had a meeting, and I understood that Jude was the most handsome man in the world. And he still is very handsome, but he’s not a boy anymore. There was something unpredictable. And it was exciting to see an actor really transform into a character. I liked the element of surprise.
How did Alicia Vikander join the film?
The first person that I was thinking of was Michelle Williams. But she couldn’t do it. And then I just thought it would be very great to do this with an actor like Alicia who is very of our times. A lot of the work I did with Alicia before the film was questioning things. Why would we make a movie about Katherine Parr? Who was this person? And we tried to think of her as a person and not as some queen.
The film has some brutal, incredibly tense sequences between Henry and Katherine in their bedchamber where she’s trying to grapple with this volatile, violent man. Was that difficult to stage?
Alicia and Jude are very alive those scenes. I like dialogue, but what interests me about cinema is action. What people do, not what they say. Those scenes are all about that. When we rehearsed those scenes it was all about finding the music. We needed to choreograph the action. I saw it as theater staging. I wanted to convey the central emotion of each of those scenes.
What made Henry VIII so unpredictable and dangerous? He executed two of his six wives and in this movie he nearly chops off Katherine’s head too.
He was going crazy. He had this ulcer on his leg that was causing tremendous pain. He wasn’t a serial killer, but he had all the power in the world. He was having a breakdown at the end of his life. His leg had an open wound for like 10 years and it stank for 10 meters. We had this wonderful woman who was able to create these scents of things like pus and wet cloth and bile and alcohol and old books. We would apply these to scenes, which made them very physical. The sets stank. They just stank.
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