The White Princess (2017)

 

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

 

Around the time Starz embraced this particular novel for adaptation, author Philippa Gregory gave an interview in which she stated her dissatisfaction with the entertainment industry, which casts aside her careful research in favor of invention, and makes the filmed adaptations less accurate than her novels. Even though her books are already wildly inaccurate, she has a point: about midway through this series, it deviates from her book into increasingly more erratic, unbelievable, and downright irrational departures from both history and the source material.

Henry Tudor (Jacob Collins-Levy) has defeated King Richard III on the battlefield and claimed the English throne, much to the horror of Dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville (Essie Davis) and her eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York (Jodie Comer). The King’s Council urges a marriage between Henry and Lizzie to end the War of the Roses, but both partners are reluctant – Henry knows Lizzie’s affection for her uncle, which led to them sleeping together before the battle; and Lizzie intends to harm him in whatever way she can.

When the king’s mother, Margaret Beaufort (Michelle Fairley), insists Henry “test” Lizzie’s fertility before the marriage, to ensure she can bear children to support the royal line, the two enter into a hate-fueled sexual relationship, which accumulates in her pregnancy. Lizzie has no choice but to marry her greatest enemy… and she decides to bring him down from within, never anticipating the rebellions that lie ahead, nor that it will cost her much more than she ever imagined.

You can view this miniseries one of three ways; as a casual and largely ignorant observer, unaware of the enormous deviations from history; as a rather shocking book adaptation that ceases to be the author’s story somewhere toward the middle; or as a straight up historical hatchet job on some of history’s lesser known figures. Since I’m a Tudorphile, I cannot help being the latter and this series left me somewhere between hysterical laughter and rage most of the time. It has so many ridiculous inaccuracies, ranging from massive-scale in size to diminutive, that knowing where to even begin start correcting them is a major job.

So I’ll say this much: Margaret Beaufort did not murder the princes, nor was she a borderline psychotic. In real life, she was a tremendously respected, well-liked, charitable woman who founded several of England’s major universities in a period where education was uncommon, including a gender-free, cost-free priory school. And the real-life marriage of Henry and Elizabeth was passionate, loving, and faithful, not paranoid, abusive, and manipulative. The real Elizabeth of York, far from being this ice-cold schemer, was loving, warm, generous, and beloved. And the real Henry was not a passive dishrag under the control of the women in his life, but a fiercely intelligent king who kept his throne through wise political maneuvers.

From a book-to-screen standpoint, Gregory’s story has been butchered; the final episode deviates so much from her novel there’s no resemblance at all to her original plot. Many of the motives are changed around, the “evil” in Margaret Beaufort is exponentially increased (to the point where I’m surprised she didn’t start drowning people in baptismal founts on her way by), and her heroine winds up the villain. Oops.

Based on pure entertainment value alone, the series is both engaging and absurd; full of extremely poor logic behind decisions (if Henry believes Lizzie has been sleeping with her uncle, why does he need to “test her fertility”; she’s not pregnant, so she’s obviously not fertile?) and as neurotic as its heroine; Lizzie flops between bipolar choices in each episode, sometimes with dramatic, unexplained turn-arounds – she fears the family curse if this person dies, but then she has them killed! The rape scene in the first episode is problematic, and Starz sold it as “not a rape scene,” because Lizzie consents; never mind, she had no choice other than consent, she did not enjoy herself, and she acted like a traumatized rape victim afterward, which she was. The music is recycled from The White Queen, and the costumes range from exquisite (Lizzie’s gowns in the later episodes are lovely, even if they are from the wrong period) to heinous (one dress, I suspect came from a burlap sack).

I appreciate the attempt in this series to steer away from gratuitous nudity and sex in favor of plot, but the inconsistent characterization, the unlikable characters, the required suspension of disbelief (this includes a ninety pound woman smothering a two hundred pound man to death with minimal effort), some severe, offensive stereotyping toward the Spanish monarchs, and the unbelievable motives make it, thankfully, rather forgettable. What bothers me most, though, is the series sells itself as feminist. It isn't. The women are all backstabbing schemers who manipulate and betray one another, and the only reason these women have “agency” in the story is because the men are all weak, insecure, fearful, and easily led. That is not feminism. A true feminist heroine can hold her own among strong men; she does not need them to be weak to make her memorable.

 

     
Sexual Content:
An opening scene flashback shows Lizzie having sex with her uncle. Henry rapes Lizzie in the first episode (drags her into his bedchamber, locks the door, and tells her she has no choice but to sleep with him; she consents because she has no choice, then mocks how "quick" he was to get back at him); Henry and Lizzie give each other semi-discreet hand-jobs under the covers in a later episode until interrupted; after his return from war, they have a graphic sex scene (backside nudity, movement, moaning). Perkin disrobes his wife on their wedding night (showing her breasts); we see his naked backside out a window when he is forced to undress and put on peasant clothes; a flashback shows a naked Richard (backside nudity) being beaten and thrown into a grave. One scene features partial backside nudity on Lizzie while she takes a bath.
 
Language:
Occasional profanities. A couple uses of "Christ!"
 
Violence:
Largely off-screen and nonviolent; the battle scenes are gruesome but not gratuitous. More concerning is the physical abuse Henry doles out; he drags Lizzie across a room and throws her into his bedchamber; he loses his temper and beats a prisoner senseless (punching him in the face with his crown, throwing him to the ground, and kicking him mercilessly); he becomes so enraged, he literally almost chokes his mother to death, throws her to the floor, and drags her by her ankle to the door, where he throws her into the hall. A prisoner turns up with his face mangled; several beheadings are implied.

 
Other:
Lizzie frets endlessly about a spell she and her mother cast; historical figures are misrepresented, slandered, accused of murders they did not commit, and even murdered.


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