‘The White Queen’ Is the War of the Roses, from the Women’s Point of View

[10 February 2014]

By David Maine

The White Queen is tremendously entertaining. It’s a ten-part mini-series based on Philippa Gregory’s trilogy (The White Queen, The Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s Daughter) and a historical confection based on that bloodiest and (to Americans at least) most bewildering example of British royal lunacy, the Wars of the Roses. There are heroes and villains, turncoats and traitors by the bucket, and in this production at least, plenty of good looking people having sex and behaving badly.

It’s not historically flawless; depending on whom you ask, it’s barely accurate at all beyond the names of the principals involved. This is unlikely to bother anyone overmuch who doesn’t have strong feelings about the relative villainy and saintliness of the Yorks and the Lancasters.

The show is sleek and stylish, with interior shots enveloped in a warm Game of Thrones-ish glow, all shafts of sunshine falling dramatically through windows and firelight chasing away the shadows. Exteriors are rife with gray fog and chilly blue light and dense forest greenery. There are battles and beheadings and letters sent and lost and dungeons and plenty of who-can-you-trust moments. Pardon me for banging on about this, but it really is a whopping good time.

It’s also history, or at least it claims to be based on history, which means that some of it is of course made up. There are plenty of arguments concerning the Wars of the Roses even today among historians – who knew what, whose motivations were honorable, whose were not – and to tell this story, those arguments much be resolved one way or another and then dramatized. If you have a dog in this fight, then you’re unlikely to be satisfied with Gregory’s (and therefore the screenwriters’) decisions.

If, on the other hand, you are just watching for entertainment and perhaps to (ahem) refresh your memory as to the general course of the conflict, well, this will do just fine, thanks. Except for the witchcraft bit, which is something the viewer will either accept as being a piece with the point of view of the times, or else a laughably poor decision on the part of the writers.

Sure there are a few inexplicable directorial choices, like showing the battle of Bosworth Field in a forest, and a snowy one at that, when it actually took place in August 1485. Whatever: the weather has no impact on the plot, and maybe the directors thought the scenery would distract the viewer from the paltriness of the battle scene, which looks like it was shot with about 40 extras.

If the epic scale of such moments falls short, well then the Byzantine plot is more than enough to keep viewers engaged (those who can keep the names straight, anyway). Broadly speaking, the story concerns the machinations of those seeking to claim the English throne for themselves or their sons.

As the action opens in 1464, mad King Henry VI has been deposed by strapping young lad Edward of York, who has started a civil war in the process. Acting against advice and good sense, Edward marries one Elizabeth Rivers, a sort-of-commoner whose family was aligned against York and with Lancaster. Rather than sealing the deal with a clever marriage between the two warring sides, however, Edward’s impulsiveness instead hatches levels of intrigue, betrayal, treachery, and bloodshed.

Performances here are universally strong, with the exception of Max Irons as Edward, who comes off as something of a loutish charisma vacuum, and not the handsome and charismatic man that history reports. James Frain fares much better as his scheming uncle Warwick, while David Oakes and Aneurin Barnard do yeoman service as Edward’s younger brothers – and ultimate rivals for the throne – George and Richard.

Really, though, this series is about the women in the story, not the would-be-kings. Rebecca Ferguson does a fine job as Elizabeth, transforming as we watch from uneasy girl-widow to hyper-entitled royal. Janet McTeer is a standout as her spell-casting mother (who was put on trial for witchcraft), while Eleanor Tomlinson and especially Faye Marsay bring to light the roles of the villainous Warwick’s daughters, Isabel and Anne.

Outside of this inner circle, the machinations of Margaret Beaufort, the mother to Henry Tudor, deserve special mention. At once laughable and very very creepy, Amanda Hale’s portrayal of Beaufort threatens to steal every scene she’s in – and she’s in a lot of them. She’s a bit one-note, but she’s still very good.

The sound and picture of this Blu-ray set are of course exquisite, and worth the extra shillings given this production’s lush costumes, meticulously reconstructed sets (many of the the scenes were shot in medieval buildings in Bruges) and warm cinematography. Bonus features are plentiful but insubstantial, with nearly a dozen brief featurettes ranging from the insightful (“Book to Series”) to the rote (“The Making of The White Queen”), with more of the latter than the former.

Fans of period dramas will likely enjoy this set immensely, but be prepared for some historical deviation and a low dose of fantasy (witchcraft! Woo-hoo!) mixed in with all the real-life conniving. If you hold deeply-felt convictions as to what really happened to the princes in the Tower, well, you might want to brace yourself for another point of view as well. For the rest of us who don’t mind a little conjecture and outright fantasy mixed in with our history – and who know that a TV drama is different from a PhD dissertation – The White Queen is an awful lot of fun.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/178886-the-white-queen/