This review contains spoilers.
A fault mostly of ambition, The White Queen’s weakest link so far is its dialogue. Slimming down twenty years of obscure historical personage and event into ten hours of telly is a lofty goal. Assume too much prior knowledge, and the viewers will be lost. Laboriously describe the position, allegiance, and family ties of every jerkin and headdress that walks onto set, and orientation eclipses story.
In these first two episodes, The White Queen has so many introductions to make that its script less dramatizes history than catalogues it. The need to get us up to speed with everyone’s identity and lineage results in lines such as “Look at my little sister Catherine and her sulky new husband, the duke”, “He is nephew to King Henry, in line to Lancastrian heir”, or “Can you pass the salt please pious Margaret Beaufort, heiress to the rose of Lancaster, and fervent believer that your young estranged son Henry Tudor is God’s own chosen king? Ta”.
Once it’s taught us to distinguish between our Beauforts, Nevilles and Woodvilles, Emma Frost’s script also has to familiarise ourselves with the threats faced by each, and sacrifices natural dialogue to do so. You’d think the King and Queen could come up with steamier bedroom talk than “While Henry’s at large, there’s always a chance of a Lancastrian uprising to put him back on the throne, or his son Edward” for instance. Unless all that ‘uprising’ talk was a euphemism.
Warwick’s daughters proved themselves useful tour guides of the plot this week, helpfully reminding viewers, “Yes, but the King should have married the French princess, as father had arranged”. Those shadow puppets were one fun way around the problem of schooling us in backstory, but they’ve limited application. If Warwick produces a set during a privy council meeting at any point, we’ll know the writer’s finally given up. Faced with the choice of course, I’d rather be an informed viewer than a baffled one, but fingers crossed episode three onwards loses the stilted exposition.
There was no shortage of plot to be talked through in episode two, including our first real meeting with Amanda Hale as the Red Queen, Margaret Beaufort.
Margaret (whose own lady mother is so icy she makes Duchess Cecily seem like Ma Larkin) is the ultimate pushy mum. If the story had been transposed to modern day, it wouldn’t be the throne she’d be aiming young Henry for, but Bieber-like international stardom. You can just see her backstage at Britain’s Got Talent now, muttering prayer into her jutting collar bones while Ant and Dec gurn their best ‘weirdo alert’ faces at the camera.
Since playing abused, anorexic Agnes in the BBC’s lush The Crimson Petal and the White, and then pious, damaged Emily in Ripper Street, Amanda Hale hasn’t really stepped out of period dress or religious neuroses on screen. There’s a very sound reason for the typecasting: she’s bloody good at it. Her hair-pulling, vision-seeing antagonist here makes for uncomfortable viewing, but adds a tempering note of gothic dysfunction to the prettiness on display elsewhere.
Elizabeth’s coronation for instance, was a posh, glittery affair, at which she was gifted not only the crown but a cocktail ring of the sort you’d find in the jewellery section of Past Times. That gold dress was all very nice, but more captivating was the range of headwear on display (did you see? Even their birds of prey wore little hats). Atop enough wig hair to block the drains of all Christendom, the ladies of court sported netted flower pots and double mounds, some even coming as fancy dress French policemen in little flat caps and Princess Leia buns. Janet McTeer’s headgear was as high as the Shard and every inch of it said ‘I’m the em-effing Queen Mother now. Deal with it, peons”. I love Janet McTeer in this. Whither today’s towering, witchy royals in cosy fur gilets?
The prettily staged coronation, which provoked more hostile sideways looks than that Spice Girls reunion tour, showed Elizabeth’s precarious political position. She may have been anointed the undoubted Queen, but Warwick and half the court saw it differently, as the later revolt proved.
Three years on, and Elizabeth had a husband captured, and a father and brother killed by Warwick and George “there are too many commoners in there” Plantagenet. We knew James Frain’s Warwick was a wrong ‘un thanks to the score dropping an ominous octave every time he arrived on screen, and that George was an unchivalrous bad loser because Edward told us so. Never fear though, Liz has a curse up her sleeve (and by the size of them, a set of dining furniture, food processor and a cuddly toy, too).
“We’ve no need for scheming women” said the Kingmaker this week. Oh yes we have. Like this; on Sunday night telly, in ludicrous hats, but just a little bit cleverer please. Until next week.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, here.
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