Television review: ‘The White Queen’ courts confusion
“The White Queen,” a co-production of the BBC and Starz, debuted in Britain this summer to mostly scathing reviews. Critics objected especially to a few glaring anachronisms — no zippers in the 15th century, nor tourist-friendly castle handrails — and a general lack of the slop-pots-’n’-rotten-teeth realism that has marked period dramas ever since HBO’s “John Adams” showcased the horror of early smallpox vaccines.
There was, however, the feeling that the Americans might like it better. The Starz version apparently features more nudity and sex and, of course, Americans are not as well-versed in that plague of British schoolchildren, the Wars of the Roses, on which “The White Queen” is based. We might, presumably, learn something about British history between Robin Hood and Henry VIII.
Actually, the show is based on three novels by Philippa Gregory, which view the 30-year feud between rival factions of the House of Plantagenet for the throne of England through the eyes of three women: Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson), Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale) and Anne Neville (Faye Marsay). That, rather than the unpocked skin of its characters, is the show’s biggest problem.
Shoveling three novels and 30 years of very confusing history into even 10 hourlong episodes requires that “The White Queen” become a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive narrative, a “greatest hits of the Wars of the Roses,” as it were. Years collapse into minutes, intricate policy is condensed into cardboard personalities, and the characters are swiftly categorized as good or evil.
But if the whole never lives up to a sum of its parts, some of the parts are quite good. The back story of how Elizabeth (Ferguson) starts out begging King Edward (Max Irons) to return her sons’ lands and winds up marrying him is rolled out with remarkable speed and very little sense.
Mercifully, Janet McTeer is on the premises, as Elizabeth’s mother, and as long as McTeer is on screen, “The White Queen” borders on the hypnotic and makes perfect sense. Naturally regal, with a voice that could control a rampaging horse or a king, McTeer’s Lady Rivers is as matter-of-fact in her political machinations as she is in her magic — a self-proclaimed descendant of the river goddess, she believes she, and Elizabeth, have “the sight.”
With such a teacher at her side, Ferguson, like Elizabeth, soon straightens up into a queen to be reckoned with, and if her love story with the less-convincing Irons is far too by-the-naked-breast numbers, well, it soon becomes one narrow thread in a very complicated tapestry.
Facing off against the young lovers is Lord Warwick (James Frain), who, having set Edward on the throne, does not appreciate him marrying a woman who is not a foreign princess. Frain, who played Cromwell in “The Tudors,” schemes with the best of them, but Lord Warwick is nothing more than a one-dimensional foil, shifting allegiances and manipulating his family in such a way as to produce a second power dame. His young daughter Anne (Marsay) is soon forced to become adept in the ways of influence and power, learning, as the tag line for “The White Queen” goes, that men go to battle and women go to war.
There are many powerful scenes in “The White Queen,” moments that illustrate time and again how a woman’s body was both her greatest tool and her inevitable prison; a man could control his fate by mind or sword, a woman can do it only by proxy.
Unfortunately, they are surrounded by the misty, swampy lands of generic medievalness. By choosing to illustrate this with so many disparate characters in a story of such inherent complexity, the creators of “The White Queen” are forced to launch too many battles, rip too many bodices and dispatch too many messengers with thundering hoofbeats.
Years slip by in a moment, dismissed with clunky exposition, the rooms with their hangings become interchangeable and claustrophobic, and though some windows shine brightly, it becomes increasingly difficult to see the kingdom for the queens.
‘The White Queen’
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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