Directors: Colin Teague, James Kent, Jamie Payne
Writers: Philippa Gregory, Emma Frost, Malcolm Campbell
Producer: Gina Cronk
Starring: Rebecca Ferguson, Amanda Hale, Faye Marsay, Eleanor Tomlinson, Juliet Aubrey, Janet McTeer, Max Irons, James Frain, Aneurin Barnard, David Oakes
MPAA Rating: 18A
Running time: 580 min.
Author Philippa Gregory has been writing historical based romance for decades and though adaptations of her novels have come before, none have managed to garner much attention or fanfare. BBC, the go-to for period dramas, took on the task of adapting Gregory’s “The White Queen,” the first in a trilogy of novels set during the War of the Roses. What’s interesting about Gregory’s take is that the story is told from the point of view of the women who toiled behind the scenes to shape not only their lives but history.
“The White Queen” opens shortly after Max Irons is crowned as King Edward IV. A womanizer, he falls for a beautiful widow who stops him on the road pleading for her husband’s lands and moneys be returned to her so that her sons may have something to inherit. Smitten, Edward spends the night with Elizabeth Woodville (newcomer Rebecca Ferguson) promising to make her queen, a promise he delivers on against everyone’s wishes. As Queen, Elizabeth proves to be a force to be reckoned with, guiding Edward in affairs of the state which pit her against Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick who is known to many as “the Kingmaker” for his ability to make and dethrone kings as it pleases, or more accurately, benefits him.
How accurate is Gregory’s take on history? “The White Queen” is not a history lesson or a dramatized take on events. Like “The Tudors” and “The Borgias,” it’s a soap opera that just happens to unfold in familiar history and boy, is it ever successful. For the layman, the basic bits of history, notable battles and events, are present but they’re far less interesting than the dramatic elements which are central to the story. This is family drama on hyperdrive complete with supernatural elements (Elizabeth and her mother Jacquetta are made out to practice some sort of witchcraft) and life or death events that force Elizabeth and her brood of children into hiding for an extended period of time.
What’s even more interesting than the personal and political drama between Elizabeth and Edward is the court drama that unfolds around them as the various groups vie for control of the crown. As control over the King slips from his grasp, Neville conspires to use his draughters for his own advancement but Isabel and, in particular, Anne come into their own and begin fighting their own battles, occasionally causing them to cross their father. And then there’s the pious Lady Beaufort who uses her husbands to try and situate her son Jasper Tudor as the next King. There’s a lot of political intrigue but “The White Queen” is at its best when it focuses on the women and the personal dramas swirling around court, something the producers latch on to early and make excellent use of.
“The White Queen” covers a lot of ground, the War of the Roses raged on for over 30 years and this story picks up partway through, and though the passing of time is a little awkward (it’s not always clear how much time has passed), the show is buoyed by gorgeous set and costume design, music, sex and a few grand looking fight sequences but mostly, some excellent drama from a talented cast of actors. Max Irons who has been mostly forgettable in his film appearances, has great charisma here and you could believe that people would go out of their way to support him. His performance is nicely balanced by James Frain who is nothing short of brilliant as the evil Warwick, the man who appears to have all of the power.
As good as the men are this is really about the women and they do not disappoint. Ferguson is wonderfully nuanced as Elizabeth, Janet McTeer is formidable as her mother Jacquetta and the Neville sisters, Eleanor Tomlinson and Faye Marsay are both very good, though Marsay plays a far larger role and her character has the most interesting and challenging arc of all the characters. And then there’s Amanda Hale as Lady Beaufort. She hardly plays a direct role in the first few episodes but her appearance demands attention and she continues to dominate scenes as her character becomes more central to the proceedings.
Though BBC always intended the series as a standalone, apparent from the way the story comes together in a tidy finale, there has been chatter that American broadcaster Starz, who showed the series in the US, is planning a follow-up based on the second book in the trilogy. Though it might still be in the far future, it’s nice to know that the entire 10 episode run of “The White Queen” is not only available on Blu-ray but that the release includes a fantastic array of extras. You could do much worse than picking this up for the period/historical drama fan in the family; I, for one, would be very pleased to get this as a Valentine’s day gift.
Blu-ray Extras: Making of “The White Queen,” Series Overview, Book to Series, The History Behind “The White Queen,” Set Tour, Dressing the Queen, Conjuring Up The Queen and an assortment of other short featurettes.