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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