The White Queen episode 1 review

Review Louisa Mellor 16 Jun 2013 - 22:00

The BBC and Starz visit the Wars of the Roses for new Sunday night historical drama, The White Queen…

This review contains spoilers.

The  Starks and Lannisters having left us for another year, the BBC is filling the void with the original players of the game of thrones: the Yorks and Lancasters. A ten-part adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s celebrated The Cousins’ War series, The White Queen takes place in the twenty years between the Battles of Hexham and Bosworth, but is less interested in clashing armies than it is power struggles between the Wars of the Roses’ royal women.

Taking in the events of a trio of novels - The White Queen, The Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s Daughter - the drama tells three stories, those of Elizabeth Woodville (beautiful and a bit witchy), Margaret Beaumont (devout and a bit mental), and Anne Neville (a pawn, and a bit tragic). A fourth book in the series, The White Princess, is due out this summer, and no doubt will enjoy a plump sales boost thanks to this glossy ten-hour trailer.

Rendered with Gregory’s characteristic fictional sheen, the series has polished up the fifteenth century like a copper kettle. Everyone and everything is spotless, prettily lit, and well turned out. There are no sweat-stained jerkins or brown teeth here; the historical stuff may have been meticulously-researched, but then it was sluiced out with twenty-first century hygiene to tick the Sunday night escapism box and make sure nobody’s put off their supper.

On the subject of realism, Gregory’s story and Emma Frost’s screenplay take liberties galore to tell a revisionist version of these women's stories, not least by portraying Elizabeth and her water sprite-descended mother as sorcerers. By so doing, they take the wind out of the sails of anyone moved to complain about the proper arrangement of the cutlery, or the King’s lack of a Maid Marian and her Merry Men Guy of Gisbourne bob. The spells and seeings remind us that this is historical fiction with hefty emphasis on the latter.

Episode one covers the swift ascent of Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson) from common widow to Queen of England. It’s only in court that her story really started to motor, and Gregory’s theme - the precariousness of power - began to wind itself menacingly around the plot.

Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson is a good match for social climber Elizabeth, whose wispy Samantha Morton-ish beauty conceals a steely core. The adaptation suffers though, from losing her character’s first person narrative, especially in those bewildering dealings with King Edward under the oak tree. With the voice of her clever pragmatist in your ear, it’s possible to read the attempted rape scene and maintain a belief in Elizabeth’s control and the boy king’s clumsiness that helps us to cope with her subsequent lust and love for Edward. Simply watching him attempt to coerce, and then force Elizabeth into sex however, paints one as a victim and the other as an unforgiveable aggressor. All the honeyed hunting lodge shagging that follows in the episode is tainted by the deeply uncomfortable memory of his attempted sexual assault, making Elizabeth a confusing romantic heroine.

Limp Mills and Boon stuff aside, once Elizabeth enters court and starts exchanging those icy ‘I’d send you to the Tower as soon as look at you’ civilities with her mother-in-law, The White Queen really comes into its own. More Liz, Jacquetta, and Cecily stand-offs please BBC. I could watch those women passive aggressively Cersei their way around the palace all summer long.

Because this drama is all about the women, not dreamboat boyband Kings or even their frustrated, scheming makers (though what a joy James Frain is as grumpy Warwick). Like that famous line about Ginger Rogers having done everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in heels, the women of the House Plantagenet had to be several moves ahead of the men to ensure their protection and that of their children. It’s no coincidence that Elizabeth was arranging the pieces on a chess set when she answered her brother’s scolding comment that she’d be a fool to sell herself too cheaply with the feminist line “I don’t intend to sell myself at all”. Attagirl.

Next week's episode provides a proper introduction to Amanda Hale's latest in a line of pious fanatics in period dress, the Countess of Richmond, and speeds through four years more of resentment and plotting. Let's all practise our best fuck-you curtsies until then.

The White Queen continues next Sunday on BBC One at 9pm.

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I thought it was pretty good. Makes me wonder if the edward and elizabeth marriage is the real life inspiration behind robb stark and jeyne westerling/talisa in GoT. Then again elizabeth seems more akin to margery tyrell and her mother is sort of like the queen of thorns. You could probably do a whole article on comparisons between the two shows.

I normally can't stand bbc costume dramas(or most other dull uk tv shows), but even I really got into this one, great acting, sharp dialogue, luscious cinematography and a plot that keeps you guessing (and I suppose it helps that the lead actress is as drop dead gorgeous as she is talented)

I know everyone is going to be pouring praise on this - but I found it boring. The bbc seem to have a knack of producing dramas that jump about between scenes but still manage to drag on - just like eastenders!

Am I the only person who couldn't stop paying attention to the fact that Elizabeth sounded Swedish while everyone else (including her family) sounded English?

Dear TheSAk

Interesting points about where GoT fits into and around the war of the roses. I will riff on it!

My feeling is that the narritive of GoT starts after the END of the war of the roses. Robert Baratheon is imo an amalgum of Henry VII (successful usurption by a distance relative of the main royal line) and Henry the VIII (physical appearance, not the wives bit, although RBs matrionial history is also complex), and that Joffrey (the little sh!t) is based on Edward VI (if you read about him he can come across as an evil little weasel - ordered his maternal uncle executed, general spoilt behaviour etc and died young). From the original invasion of Aemon the Conqueor (Norman conquest allegory), the conquest of the remaining kingdoms like Dorne (norman pacifying of Northern England, Wales and Cornwall) through the different inter Targaryian civil wars (which play out similar to first the Anarchy and then the War of the Roses), the history of Westros between the conquest the start of GoT shares similarities to Englands from 1066 through to 1500/1550. This puts us a little later than most people place it as other folks I have discussed this with placed it more around the successful usurpers Henry Bolingbroke or Edward of York. I am of cause not 'right', only GRRM is canon! I would be interested in anyone elses input!

Seemed O.K. Elizabeth is a little confused, first teasing the king and leading him on, then shunning him, then shagging him! Hate it when hair seems to get stuck to breasts too - not wanting to perv or anything, it's just very unnatural watching hair cling to breasts! I'm sure there is a better way of filming it that is more discreet and arty? And, when in court, she turns into quite a nasty person! Some of the sets/locations seem very modern too, with little attempt to disguise this fact - and the DoP definitely loves shafts of sunlight pouring onto set - I thought the art of this was that you saw the beams of light, and not a smoke filled room?! Quite boringly shot and very bright.

A limp start, but will hopefully pick up speed soon!

Not a bad start, will give it another 2 or 3 episodes before really judging it. I liked the way that at first, you never know if Edward is a lying villain or genuinely in love and you only find out near the end (unless you know your history of course!)

After reading some articles on the internet, it seems we have a new Torchwood kind situation going on here. Apparantly the Starz version of August has more or other scenes. These involve more sex and violence. Not to mention what Flemish co producer VRT is going to screen.

Second review I've read today which said the next book is the fourth in the series when it's actually the fifth (story of jaquetta rivers is also a book). Great to see a review though and looking forward to watching it on catch up =)

Everything about this show was a bit crap, I found it hard to sit through

Personally I thought this was bad - A sign of a good drama is where you get absorbed into the world created by the story, characters and production - but watching this was like watching amateur dramatics.

Poor story, dialogue, acting, production values, directing etc. - and considering they spent >£1m per episode I'm staggered as to where this money is being put, as it's obviously not on the following:
1. Acting talent - the acting was terrible, I've seen better at a school play - Jeremy Irons son playing the King obviously doesn't have his dad helping him with his homework. His ham acting made it look like you were watching somebody trying too hard to 'act' and therefore the character was unconvincing. The rest of them didn't fare much better, Elizabeth's mother was portrayed by a succession of stupid faces and Warwick was overacted to the point of panto villain.
2. Production/Directing - I'm no expert but this didn't seem to portray 15th Century England at all, it was far too glossy and just didn't look right. The directing was noticeably amateurish too, with far too many above/close up face shots trying to emote almost every character.
3. Story - Trying too hard to be like Game of Thrones i think, I know like @Lord Loxley said GoT's Medieval setting is somewhat based on War of the Roses but what's the whole deal with the magic in The White Queen?? Well, if you can call it that, more like pulling bits of thread and making stupid expressions while looking in a mirror.

I could go on about all the supporting characters/actors, poor dialogue etc.. to me it seems like the BBC have seen how popular GoT is and said , 'we need a bit of that' and if this is the best they can come up with then it's a shame they're wasting our licence fee....

It might sound a bit anal but the anachronistic architecture did my head in! I know it was filmed in Belgium for tax reasons but couldn't they have done a bit better with making it look like it was filmed in England? It just didn't look right. The scenes where the queen went to court looked like they'd been filmed outside a Victorian mill not a medieval castle. It completely distracted me from the story.

Totally agree, it didn't look right at all and this was a distraction which took you out of the story setting

Cheers thx1971 your review pretty much nailed it! I think they pander to the US audience more than the UK. Unless something fantastic happens I don't think I'll get passed Episode 2.

The scriptwriter for The White Queen is genuinely called Emma Frost? Or is that a pseudonym?

um. she took the dagger n cut her throat right.. wheres the wound.. ? :/

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