‘The White Queen’ – Episode One: Review

by Ross Crawford

UPDATEThe White Queen’s producers have responded to criticism about the controversial attempted rape scene in this first episode: http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2013/jun/21/white-queen-rape-scene-producers-respond.

I would argue they miss the point somewhat. Disturbing as it may be, rape shouldn’t necessarily be censored. But it should be challenged and not allowed to pass without comment. Furthermore, they say that Elizabeth and Edward were truly ‘in love’ in reality, yet the likelihood is that Elizabeth was married to Edward against her will for the good of her family. This was standard practice during this time period. A loving marriage was often, unfortunately, altogether more rare.

Okay, hands up, who thought this was about Queen Elizabeth I? 

The colossal crossover success of Game of Thrones surely makes any television executive weak at the knees. A new co-production from the BBC and Starz, The White Queen, seems precisely manufactured to gobble up some of HBO’s massive audience, and as such, it is timed to coincide almost perfectly with the conclusion of Season 3 of Game of Thrones.

Rebecca Ferguson as Elizabeth Woodville.

And just as the characters in The White Queen publicly display their allegiance to the House of Lancaster or York with a red or white rose pinned to their breast, the show itself wears its influences on its sleeve. This is immediately apparent during the first scene which is near identical to the opening moments of Season One of Game of Thrones. A wounded soldier scrambles desperately through a snowy forest, pursued hotly by an unknown enemy. Sound familiar?

Admittedly, The White Queen soon differentiates itself but unfortunately, not in a very positive way. It generally looks sumptuous, as it should, having reportedly cost £25 million (!) to produce. (An exception to this is a scene in a courtyard, which features some decidedly modern-looking window-frames, drainpipes, handrails and guttering!).  Some of the supporting cast provide fun, campy performances, particularly James Frain as Lord Warwick, ‘The Kingmaker’, and Janet McTeer as the eponymous Queen’s scheming, sorceress mother.

These minor high-points aside, the show is otherwise fraught with problems. Little attempt is made at outlining the complex political circumstances of this turbulent period of English history. Instead, we are lumbered with a turgid romance plot. Our main protagonist, Elizabeth Woodville, played by Rebecca Ferguson, is a cold, strangely distant figure, even when she is supposedly elated. Her internal drive and motivations are a mystery and her behaviour is almost entirely inconsistent and unpredictable. She states her only goal is to safeguard the future of her children by recovering her inheritance from the dashing King Edward IV, the young usurper whose rebellion caused her husband’s death. Yet her subsequent actions belie this desire and do much to endanger those she seeks to protect. This has the potential to be an interesting dichotomy, with Elizabeth pulled in opposite directions by her passions, yet Ferguson is content to play Elizabeth simply as a gullible, quite irresponsible young woman.

Equally problematic is Max Irons as King Edward IV, who mistakes a winning smile and good looks for true charisma. The failings of the two lead actors are apparent enough when they are apart, but whenever Ferguson and Irons share a scene their lack of chemistry is painfully noticeable. When this is coupled with cringe-inducing dialogue, the blossoming love of Elizabeth and Edward is almost impossible to believe.

Yet even more important than the lead actors’ shortcomings, is a troubling and disturbing aspect to their on-screen relationship.

Edward IV (Max Irons) and Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson).

Early on, it appears that the show will attempt to subvert the audience’s expectation of a conventional romance between Elizabeth and Edward, as the latter forces himself upon her.

No means no, unless you’re the King of England, apparently.

She manages to escape by threatening suicide, knife held to her throat, and this finally causes Edward to relent. He flounces off, snarling about being ‘humiliated’. Astonishingly, the very next scene has Elizabeth expressing sorrow at her actions: ‘I refused, and if he dies I will regret that forever. I regret it now’. She confides her love for Edward to her mother and implicitly vindicates, or at least downplays, his horrifying behaviour. In fact, his attempted rape is never once condemned, challenged or even commented on by any character. Because he (supposedly) loves her, his actions are excused; it is implied they only reflect over-enthusiasm or lustful exuberance on his part.

Soon afterwards, Edward and Elizabeth meet again. This time around, Edward does not try to rape Elizabeth but instead indulges in an unhealthy dose of emotional blackmail: he claims he will lose the forthcoming battle–which involves most of her male family members–unless she ease his mind by sleeping with him.

Again, at the time, it seemed clear that Edward was being built up as a villainous figure, leading to a potentially intriguing investigation into the limits of royal power and/or the position of women in medieval English society. Yet subsequent scenes show this to be an entirely naive assumption, as Edward and Elizabeth enjoy a whirlwind romance, replete with a few soft-focused, romantically scored, sex-scenes. There is absolutely no nuance here, the show has no interest in questioning the actions of Edward and instead, it is gearing up to portray Earl Warwick and Edward’s mother, the Duchess of York, as the boo-hiss villains of the piece. Clearly, we are encouraged to invest in the unlikely romance of king and commoner (‘I would love you if you were a common pauper’, says Elizabeth). But when love is built upon such vile foundations, it is impossible to sympathise.

The White Queen

Edward IV of England played by Max Irons.

Consequently, The White Queen is difficult to recommend, at least at this opening juncture. Fans of fast-paced historical romps will find little to enjoy, and even the intended audience of romantics will likely be appalled at the implications of the central  love-story. Of course, many shows stumble at the first hurdle, only to pick up markedly soon after. Moving forward, there may be some scope for addressing the issues highlighted above. But at the moment, The White Queen seems to be running in a different and quite disturbing direction.

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