Monday, 19 August 2013

The White Queen

England, 1464. King Edward IV of the House of York has won his crown in battle, defeating the forces of the mad Henry VI at the Battle of Towton. Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick and Edward's most important supporter, is widely credited for the victory and is now arranging a marriage between Edward and the daughter of the King of France. However, Edward goes behind his back to marry Elizabeth Woodville, a beautiful minor noblewoman whom he met by chance. As Elizabeth's family ascend to power, Neville chooses to oppose them...even if it means siding with the House of Lancaster and restarting the Wars of the Roses.

The White Queen is a ten-part mini-series based on three novels from Philippa Gregory's Cousins' War series: The White Queen, The Red Queen and The Kingmaker's Daughter. Unusually for this sort of series, the focus is less on the men and battles and more on the viewpoints and experiences of three women who played important roles in the period. These are Elizabeth Woodville, the minor noble who becomes Queen Consort (unusual in a time when the king usually marries European royalty or nobility); the pious Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor (the future Henry VII); and Anne Neville, the younger daughter of Richard Neville and the future wife of the notorious Richard III. Other women also play important secondary roles, such as Margaret of York (Henry VII's bride-to-be), Isabel Neville (Anne's older sister) and Jacquetta, Lady Rivers (Elizabeth Woodville's mother). This presents an interesting female perspective on a period of history traditionally dominated by accounts of battles and manly men strapping on armour.

Or rather, it would if the series worked. The White Queen may be the very definition of 'inconsistent'. The series lurches from mediocrity to being outright terrible to having a couple of pretty decent episodes and then back again. It's certainly no Game of Thrones (the huge success of which is almost certainly responsible for this series being made; the Wars of the Roses were a major influence on George R.R. Martin's books) but it often struggles to even be The Tudors.

On the plus side, the casting for the most part is good. The actresses playing the central three roles are all pretty good, though Amanda Hale's Margaret Beaufort has to cope with some pretty awful writing at times (her reaction to any crisis being to proclaim, "This is God's will!"), with Faye Marsay (Anne Neville) being one of the few actors to convincingly age in her performance as well as appearance over the course of the series. James Frain's scheming Earl of Warwick is excellent, with his political machinations occasionally being interrupted by Gordon Ramsay-style explosive losses of temper at his allies' incompetence or bad judgement. Rupert Graves schemes admirably as William, Lord Stanley in the latter half of the series (and should be signed up for Game of Thrones as soon as an appropriate role becomes available). Aneurin Barnard makes for a convincing Richard III, who is here played as a more tragic figure doomed by circumstance rather than a cartoon villain (despite developing a passing resemblance to Edward Scissorhands by the series finale). David Oakes (George, Duke of Clarence) may be getting typecast as 'gittish medieval noble bloke', having played this role before on Pillars of the Earth and The Borgias, but he plays it very well. The weakest link here is Max Irons, whose oafish and dull Edward IV is lacking the charisma of the real historical figure.

The series is at its best when centred on a short time-period. The sixth through eighth episodes (covering the relatively peaceful period between the Battle of Tewkesbury and Edward IV's death) are the strongest, as they focus on political machinations, family relationships and the characters themselves. The ninth episode, which jumps forward to the rise of Richard III and the situation with the Princes in the Tower, is also decent. However, the first half of the series is deeply flawed. Dialogue is almost exclusively based on exposition, with people reeling off information as if from a Wikipedia entry in a vain effort to keep the viewer up to speed on what the heck is going on. Weeks and sometimes months pass between scenes with absolutely no indication of the passage of time and the compression of seven years of fairly intricate history into just five episodes (the remaining five cover fourteen years) turns out to be a really bad idea. People swap sides, often for no apparent reason, and there is a lack of depth to events. It feels like the drama bits of a good docu-drama, only without the context for what is happening (a familiarity with the Wars of the Roses - or just keeping the Wikipedia page open as you watch - is useful). These early episodes are kept alive only by the heroic efforts of James Frain and, to a lesser extent, our three leads.

That said, the series finale is pretty diabolical. The lead-up to the Battle of Bosworth and the battle itself are compressed into one hour, leaving no time for the aftermath, some of which is deliciously ironic (particularly the taught relationships between Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth Woodville and Elizabeth of York). The series has no real ending, just fading out after the battle without much reflection on what's happened. This feels anti-climactic and fails to put the series in its proper historical context for those who are not already knowledgeable about the time period. My co-watchers had no idea that Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort were the grandmothers of Henry VIII, for example, and not ending with an epilogue where Margaret sees her grandson being crowned (she died only after Henry VIII came to power) seems like a missed opportunity.

In terms of historical accuracy, the series is surprisingly good in its first few episodes. It doesn't dial back the complexity of affairs too much, although a few minor characters like the Earl of Warwick's brother, are missing. As the series goes on, however, it deviates more and more from actual history. A few times it shows some good judgement - such as managing to maintain the ambiguity of the fate of the Princes in the Tower without sacrificing the drama - but more often than not it makes baffling choices. The showdown between Elizabeth Woodville's brother Antony, guarding her son and heir Edward V, and the soon-to-be Richard III is ripe stuff for television drama but the TV show simply removes it.

However, the series ultimately has two major problems which moves it from 'watchable tosh' to 'barely watchable hokum' category. The first is that Jacquetta and her daughter Elizabeth are witches. I don't meant they are accused of being witches (as both were in real life), but they actually are witches. They use magic on multiple occasions to summon storms to smash enemy fleets or delay them from sailing and put curses on people that ultimately kill them or leave their children dead. For a series based on real historical events, this injection of pure fantasy is jaw-droppingly stupid. They don't even sell it particularly well, with the participants discussing their magic-using ways in letters and everyone around them being relaxed about it.

Secondly, the show looks cheap. It may have been made for $25 million (that's about $39 million, or a bit more than half the budget of a season of Game of Thrones), but that's simply far too little to tell a story of this magnitude. The costumes are good (blatantly visible zips aside) but the bulk of the action takes place on a relatively small number of sets or on locations re-used a few too many times for supposedly different locations. The budget problem is most notable when it comes to the battles. The Wars of the Roses turned on a series of major battles at Towton, Barnet, Tewkesbury and Bosworth Field. Towton predates the start of the series, but the other three battles are fought during it and all of them are fake, unconvincing and so poorly-staged they might as well have not bothered. In particular, the decision to film both the Battle of Barnet and the Battle of Bosworth Field (and that's 'Field', remember) in the same forest (!) is truly moronic. Armies are shown marching in single file and then rushing towards one another with zero semblance of formation, tactics or strategy. The production team only seem to have about 15 extras available and no CGI budget (a couple of shots of ships aside, there doesn't seem to be any CGI at all in the series, which is baffling as it means they can't stage any big events convincingly), so the battles then unfold in extreme close-up with no continuity from shot to shot, making it almost impossible to follow what's going on. So as to avoid showing the fact they have no extras, the director also sticks the camera on the ground aiming up at people, which gets distracting quite quickly.

Ultimately, you cannot tell the story of 20 years of the Wars of the Roses (and not even the full conflict) in just ten episodes. The pacing is shot to hell in the first half of the series, meaning most people won't stick around for the decent-ish episodes in the latter half. The budget is woefully inadequate for the scale and scope of the series, and the attempt to stretch it to cover everything leaves it looking cheap. The writing is often excruciating (though this also improves in the latter half). All of this undermines the work of some pretty good actors heroically tackling the iffy material.

The White Queen (**½) has moments when it almost works, but these moments can't quite make up for the crushing mediocrity and outright incompetence of the rest of the series. It is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and later in the year in the USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).


Sara said...

Well thanks for enduring the whole series, so I don't have to! There's a good deed if I know one.

Barry said...

Have you read any of the books? My sister-in-law raves over them, and I'm trying to work out whether they're worth the effort...

Paul Weimer said...

Historical fantasy is fine and dandy...but this sounds like a problem.

Now, why can't we get the BBC to do adaptations of Anne Lyle's books? I'd pay money for that.

Anonymous said...

Not only should Rupert Graves be snatched up for GoT when possible, but also the actor who played Sir Brackenbury (Shaun Dooley).

Dooley I think would make an excellent choice to play Samwell's father (although Graves could play it as well).

Dooley's imdb:

Anonymous said...

Sweet Jesus...they include *actual witches* with *actual magical powers* in a series allegedly - by which I mean, ACTIVELY PROMOTED IN TRAILERS AS - a "historical drama" about the War of the Roses?

Dear God. Thank you. I will now avoid this series like a plague.

--The Dragon Demands

Adam Whitehead said...

Well, they call down curses and raise storms to destroy their enemies and these things happen. I've seen some people suggest it might be coincidence, like the ending of Bernard Cornwell's WARLORD CHRONICLES where Nimueh tries to do 'real' magic to summon a storm and it apparently works, but it could also have been a coincidence or she was reading the weather signs. In THE WHITE QUEEN, however, the 'magic' works reliably 100% of the time, to the point that it's never clear why they don't use magic when things go wrong (i.e. when Edward IV gets ill).

The books as I understand are 'better', but that doesn't necessarily make them 'good'.

Gabriele C. said...

The witch stuff is in the books, too. And tons of Melusine references. Most of Gergory's stuff may pass as historical Fantasy, but not historical fiction.

Alice said...

Witches and historical inaccuracies aside, I found the series enjoyable.

Wendy Hull said...

Personally, I thought the costumes were pretty terrible, inaccurate, and cheep. I wish they did better despite the budget.