The White Queen

[Warning: Some spoilers for later episodes may follow, though in fairness you’ve had about 500 years to catch up.]

There’s nothing juicier than a good history–unless you want to make it to television, in which case you need to change it up. History takes too many chances.

Luckily, it’s a heyday for the period piece, from Mad Men’s chronological kiddie pool back through Downton Abbey, swinging past Austen’s Regency satire, and into the potboilers of Doubletville with The Tudors, The Borgias, and even Game of Thrones (much heavier on the imagined-world history than the fantasy). Audiences’ collective attention span is therefore primed and ready for family trees that look like spiderwebs, and if you can rattle off the sigils of seven houses on your fingers at a moment’s notice, how hard can it be to keep track of a red rose and a white rose?

Enter The White Queen, a BBC import miniseries that premieres tonight and chronicles the era between the Plantagenet War of the Roses and the beginnings of the Tudor dynasty in 15th century England (a historical period George R. R. Martin has admitted greatly influenced the teeming politics of Westeros, which will be the last Game of Thrones reference, because this miniseries has enough problems of its own).

Drawn from a trio of novels by Philippa Gregory–The White Queen (Elizabeth Woodville, queen to Edward IV), The Red Queen (Margaret Beauford, mother of Henry Tudor), and The Kingmaker’s Daughter (Anne Neville, queen to Richard III)the miniseries presents a sprawling 10-hour epic that, if nothing else, commits fully to its scope, employing half the working actors in the UK and surrounding countries in service of its storytelling.

Of course, the storytelling here is Gregory’s, and with this War of the Roses cycle she took even fewer chances than usual. In particular, there are more caprices and coincidences in history than fiction can support in a narrative that’s meant to read as causal, which is a common problem when fictionalizing history. To avoid it entirely, Gregory opts to lean into the witchcraft angle that haunted Jacquetta Woodville during the Earl of Warwick’s attempts to discredit the Queen’s family; now there are no coincidences and no caprices, only spells and plot points.

Unfortunately, tonight’s premiere is propelled by one of the series’ least interesting characters: Edward IV, played by walking smirk Max Irons, who attempts to woo the beautiful Elizabeth Woodville by trying to rape her until she threatens to slice her own throat open (chivalry!), and spends the rest of the miniseries halfway between a Shakespearean undergrad and a Christopher Walken impression. The focus stays regrettably tight on their relationship; Rebecca Ferguson is duly gorgeous, but her love for the king is by far her least interesting relationship, which means the only reasons to keep going until next week are the expertly arch performance by Janet McTeer as hyper-competent matriarch Jacquetta and the knowledge that eventually Elizabeth and Edward will have to go to court and meet other people.

Those other people are, by and large, fantastically cast: The call-sheet is the single biggest reason to give this miniseries a shot. The other York brothers are unrepentant shit George (David Oakes, who’s getting to be a dab hand at this) and quiet schemer Richard (an excellent Aneurin Barnard); there are a handful of steely matriarchs (Juliet Aubrey, Caroline Goodall, and Veerle Baetens in the lead as Margaret of Anjou). In the hands of Amanda Hale, Margaret Beaufort becomes the series’ most magnetic figure; forcibly estranged from her son Henry Tudor and at first without the political acumen to negotiate court, she burns with all the righteous fervor of a saint, making her both fascinating and sometimes painful to watch. With her second husband Henry Stafford (Michael Maloney), she builds a poignant picture of an arranged marriage built on negotiation, with flashes of both resentment and fondness.

But in a 10-hour series that has to race through 30 years of shenanigans, characterization is the first casualty, as the series attempts to synthesize characters from three novels with disparate narrations, leaving a lot of actors in the cold. James Frain is an accomplished actor, but with the cardboard powermonger Warwick he’s given, he hits and stays at full Jafar pretty early on. Faye Marsay is a talented newcomer, but her Anne Neville gets perhaps the shortest stick of all, going from naïve victim of circumstance to cutthroat politico, often in a single scene, only to reset for her next one. And the actors of the ensemble have to scramble to be memorable whatsoever, though all try gamely, and gnaw their way through the most leaden of their dialogue, providing a handy drinking game for anyone whose mind wanders from the story. (Don’t pick David Oakes. Or Rebecca Ferguson. Or James Frain. Maybe just generally watch out.)

And attention might well wander, since things manage to be busy and flat at the same time, laving the actors as the only thing really worth considering. Aesthetically, despite some sharp camera work and the occasional narrative crash into a historical event, The White Queen largely exists in that lovely floating space where the 15th century never reached anything dirtier than Ren-Faire disarray, aging characters get only some gray hair at the temples, and it never occurs to the costume department to track changing times or social positions by changing the clothes on their actors (many of whom wear the same three dresses for what turns out to be twenty years).

The series has been promoted in the states with the tagline, “Men go to battle. Women wage war.” Gender determinism aside, there’s a grim fascination about the inner circles of society and the machinations of the elite (from palace royals to Gossip Girl), and occasionally there are glimpses of interesting ideas. The parallel between the dual powers of Elizabeth’s witchcraft and Margaret’s prayer, practiced with equal fervor and nearly-identical efficacy, is as close as the series has gotten so far, but provides enough suspense to make their relationship the most tense in the series; and the magic, while disappointing in a story that didn’t need it, is generally visually subtle (a thread tied to a tree, the writing of names, a puff of breath) even if it’s narratively excessive.

Unfortunately, despite a slew of almost-rans, The White Queen never quite comes together, alternately over-the-top and anemic, with uneven pacing that never puts off until tomorrow what it can muddle today; still, there’s enough good acting underlying the camp, from a cast that provides just enough dishy stand-ins for scions of the past, to check in next week when the courtly going gets good.

Stray observations:

  • Historical fun fact: Elizabeth Woodville had several strikes against her as a potential Queen of England, but Warwick was a master politician and spun the story as hard as he could – she wasn’t a commoner, she was of the people, and she wasn’t a traitor, she was uniting two houses under a banner of peace! And in an attempt to make people disregard her prior marriage and children, she used every Virgin Mary symbol in the book (of which only the loose hair makes it into the miniseries) to present herself as spiritually virginal.
  • Historical less-fun fact: Royal families of this era were not generally this dishy.
  • Historical shade-throwing fact: Richard III probably was dishier than Shakespeare’s “poisonous bunch-backed toad” version; he was writing for a Tudor court, and knew what side his bread was buttered on. Historical accounts seem to agree Richard’s looks were unremarkable.
  • If you watch the whole series, keep an eye out for handrails on a staircase in a later episode! Also zippers. The past was very confusing.

More TV Club