Monday, December 2, 2013

The White Queen (2013)

Richard of Gloucester (Aneurin Barnard) helps his oldest brother Edward IV (Max Irons) at the Battle of Barnet
I was finally able to watch the entire BBC production of The White Queen on StreamTV. I must confess that I enjoyed it immensely. It is much more pleasant to watch than The Tudors because there are not the irrelevant subplots; neither is the drama constantly punctuated by four letter words and scenes of people in flagrante delicto. While the Starz version of The White Queen is a bit more graphic it still does not compare to the extreme licentiousness we have all come to associate with the court of Henry VIII, his television court, that is. The Plantagenets seem like Puritans in comparison, although Puritans they certainly are not. Furthermore, The White Queen is perfectly cast, well-acted and, in spite of the historical liberties taken, manages to bring to life the turbulent era of English medieval history which historians call the Wars of the Roses.

First, here are the negative aspects. The costumes are a disappointment. Where are the hennins, and steeple hats and butterfly headdresses? Those high floating headpieces are part of the strangeness and grandeur of the era! And the men's hats are missing, too. It is unfair to such gifted performers and such a powerful story-line to have costumes which lacked authenticity. It leaves me asking, why? Those headdresses would have made a good show into an amazing show.
Fifteenth-century headgear for ladies
I also did not like the overemphasis on witchcraft. While it certainly gave a fairy-tale quality to the story, there is no evidence that Elizabeth Woodville and Elizabeth of York were involved in witchcraft. Those ladies were at least as pious as Margaret Beaufort, the real Margaret Beaufort. In the movie, Margaret is shown to be unbalanced. One minute, she is lighting candles at the altar and the next minute she is plotting the deaths of the boy princes. As Leanda de Lisle writes:
In The White Queen Margaret is depicted as a fanatic, ever invoking God. Yet the strict religious devotions of Margaret Beaufort's old age were commonplace among noblewomen of her time. They marked an effort to look beyond the ruthless political culture into which they had been born, to understand Christ's example of love.

Portraying Margaret as a religious nutcase shows an arrogant blindness to the culture of our past. That is worrying in a shrinking world when we need to be able to understand other viewpoints, other beliefs.
Elizabeth Woodville, her daughters, and Anne Neville, too, were all what we would today consider to be religious woman, giving examples of prayer, by joining confraternities, and of charity, by endowing religious houses and helping the poor. I understand that the witchcraft element comes directly from the novels of Philippa Gregory, upon which the program is based. I must say it is a grand line when Queen Elizabeth is about to put a curse on whoever it was murdered her boys, and Richard III says to her: "Be careful with your curses, they may come back upon someone you love."

Anne Neville (Faye Marsay) is found by Richard of Gloucester after the Battle of Tewkesbury in a touching scene.
Aneurin Barnard, who played Richard of Gloucester, later Richard III, is a remarkable young actor from Wales. He studied the historical Richard in order to prepare for the role. Mr. Barnard's interpretation of Richard III takes into account the strong sense of justice which Richard displayed as an administrator in the north of England, as well as the Plantagenet propensity for ruthlessness. When Richard goes to Queen Elizabeth to convince her that he did not murder her sons in the Tower, he says, "If I had killed them, I would have put their bodies on public display." Knowing the York family as she does, those words convince Elizabeth enough to send her oldest daughters into the care of Richard and Anne. Richard III comes across in this drama as an analytic soul who is struggling to do the right and reasonable thing, who places loyalty above all else, and has no comprehension of those who cannot keep faith. He will do what he thinks he has to do even if it kills him. Of course, Richard is accused of being a tyrant, both in the show and in history, but a genuine tyrant would have executed Margaret Beaufort, who was plotting with every breath to place her son Henry Tudor on the throne. Then Richard's troubles would have been over. He was ruthless, but not ruthless enough. A truly heartless man would have won the day.

Queen Elizabeth (Rebecca Ferguson) does not trust anyone
Rebecca Ferguson proved to be not only stunningly beautiful but a strong enough leading actress to carry the series. Among the female characters, Elizabeth is the only one who knows for certain that she is loved for herself and not for her fortune or position in society. In a life full of ups and downs unlike any other, Elizabeth is able to maintain a passionate devotion for her husband Edward IV (Max Irons). In spite of his infidelities, Elizabeth remains Queen of his heart. When Edward dies, however, the entire family structure begins to unravel. In her grief Elizabeth retreats into paranoia, which is not completely unjustified; it helps to set the stage for the final tragedy.

Richard and Anne, happy at last.
The real Anne Neville. Headdresses were sorely lacking in the film.
Richard takes the crown. His happiness ends.
Richard III and his niece Elizabeth of York (Freya Mavor).
The series shows Richard III becoming infatuated with his niece, Elizabeth of York. Elizabeth, in turn, falls in love with Richard. As soap opera-ish as this seems, it is of historical record that Richard was behaving in such a way towards Elizabeth that people thought he meant to marry her. Richard was in the process of losing his entire family one-by-one. Elizabeth had only just left the sanctuary of Westminster. Her brothers had disappeared and were assumed to be dead, and the poor girl had been declared illegitimate, as her granddaughters Elizabeth and Mary would later be. In such strained circumstances, bizarre things may happen. As author Amy Licence says:
It does appear that some of Richard and Elizabeth’s contemporaries believed in his intention to marry his niece and weren’t happy about it: twelve doctors of divinity were summoned by Parliament in order to put forward their objections and Richard later issued a complete public denial that this had ever been his intention. However, as with all these figures, the gulf between the public persona and the private sentiment can only be guessed at. (Read more.)
Anne's death is another truly heartrending scene, and faithful to history. As the Richard III Society website affirms:
Anne died on 16 March 1485, on the same day that England experienced a great eclipse of the sun. She was just three months short of her twenty-ninth birthday. She was buried in Westminster Abbey 'with honours no less than befitted the burial of a queen' (Crowland, p. 175.). She had been in life, according to the Beauchamp family hagiographer John Rows, 'seemly, amiable and beauteous, and in conditions full commendable and right virtuous and, according to the interpretation of her name, Anne, full gracious.'

The final postscript to Anne's story occurred on 30 March, when Richard called the Mayor and citizens of London and the available lords to the great hall of the Hospital of St. John to address the rumor that he had had Anne poisoned in order to marry Elizabeth. Addressing them 'in a loud and distinct voice', he 'showed his grief and displeasure aforesaid and said it never came into his thought or mind to marry in such manner wise, nor willing nor glad of the death of his queen but as sorry and in heart as heavy as man might be …' (Lander, pp. 255-6).
Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field
The Battle of Bosworth Field is a stupendous scene, although it was not filmed in a summer field (the real battle took place on the Octave day of the Assumption) but in a wintry wood. Nevertheless, it presents the fall of Richard III as a tragedy worthy of the pen of Aeschylus. (Shakespeare let us down, unfortunately.) I wonder if, when Richard makes his charge into the heart of the enemy forces, deep in his heart he wants to die. He is betrayed by Lord Stanley, his trusted courtier. I wondered why they cast a fine actor like Rupert Graves as a knave like Stanley but when it came to the final battle, and Stanley shouts "Tudor!" I knew why. It is an apocalyptic, history-changing moment. Aneurin Barnard studied the skull of the recently exhumed Richard III and made certain that in the filming of the battle of Bosworth he was struck in the exact places that Richard was struck. It is an hour of doom worthy of Tolkien, full of judgment and irreplaceable loss, as chivalry comes to an end in England, for better and for worse.

Henry Tudor (Michael Marcus) at Bosworth with his mother Lady Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale)
 I like the underlying concept of the The White Queen, showing how women were the real power brokers in a stormy age, although it was often behind the scenes. This contradicts the popular view that medieval women lived in some kind of chattel slavery; in actuality they had rights under both canon and civil law. Furthermore, they had enormous influence on the course of events. A woman's love, whether it be for her husband or her children or both, could change the destiny of a nation and even the history of the world. The Shakespeare blog comments on how words which the Bard put into Richard's mouth in Henry VI Part 3 could just as easily be spoken by Margaret Beaufort in The White Queen:
And yet I know not how to get the crown,
For many lives stand between me and home:
And I, – like one lost in a thorny wood,…
Torment myself to catch the English crown:
And from that torment will I free myself,
Or hew my way out with a bloody axe.
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7 comments:

Sassy Countess said...

I've noticed that Philippa Gregory uses witchcraft in quite a few of her stories. So, while not accurate for the time, it would be for the author. I think that she likes it for mystical purposes because why else would something strange happen? Well, to her stories, anyway.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, I guess when people do not understand the mystical side of Christianity they turn to magic as a poor substitute.

Jadis said...

Jacquetta of Luxembourg and Elizabeth Woodville were accused of Witchcraft by Richard as a part of his ploy to seize the throne by declaring Woodville's children illegitimate, claiming she had procured her marriage by witchcraft (Statute - Titulus Regius 1484).

Jacquetta fought and won a previous accusation.

This was not without precedent, as the Duchess of Gloucester in an earlier generation (1440s) was forced to do penance in her shift for witchcraft.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, very true. Weren't Jane Shore and Hastings also accused? Jacquetta was tried and cleared. Jane had to do public penance, not for witchcraft though but for whoredom. Elizabeth was in sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. She was never tried, even when she came out, which means the accusation was not taken seriously. I have never read that Elizabeth of York was a witch. That seems to be straight from Philippa Gregory.

Dymphna said...

I've wondered why Richard behaved so savagely to Jane Shore.

elena maria vidal said...

Dymphna, I think Richard suspected, or had proof, that Jane had been involved in plotting against him. However, her relationship with Edward IV, which gave public scandal, was reason enough. In the Middle Ages, public penance was often required for witchcraft and adultery. Some people did such penance voluntarily.

Wendy Hull said...

They could've done better with the casting and writing.