INVISION FOR STARZ Enlarge
In 1464, a beautiful widow became the first commoner to be crowned queen of England. England didn’t like it.
Elizabeth Woodville had no 12-carat sapphire ring, no Pippa, no gown from Alexander McQueen. She had two sons without land or title, ties to the treasonous House of Lancaster, and a reputation for dabbling in black magic.
The White Queen, the Starz network’s lavish, fast-paced retelling of her story, a 10-part series which begins Saturday, is first and foremost a great excuse to watch pretty people strip off their scratchy medieval clothes. Luckily for us, it’s also a well-plotted, accurate-enough romantic saga.
With three Philippa Gregory novels as source material, The White Queen, made with the BBC, tells at least that many sides to the story. That format of artful juxtaposition, along with pointedly gory images of battle, replaces any romance-novel sensibilities with a more challenging political narrative.
Like The Other Boleyn Girl, another Gregory adaptation, this is a tale about women, with men serving as the chaotic force they struggle against, all in the name of rising to power. The White Queen spares us any smug pretense of easy peace if women ruled this world.
Ruling as the series begins is Edward IV (a sleepy-eyed Max Irons), who upsets the monarchy’s apple cart by honoring his secret marriage to Elizabeth Grey, formerly Woodville (Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson), after a courtship of heavy petting beneath an oak tree.
Oscar nominee Janet McTeer is a commanding presence as Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta, who turns to the dark arts for a little covert intelligence-gathering. Amanda Hale gives a refreshingly raw performance as “Red Queen” Margaret Beaufort, who gave birth at age 13 to a boy whose legitimate claim to the throne has forced him into exile.
“You are Henry Tudor, and you will be king of England,” Margaret tells him during one of their rare meetings. “Bend the knee, but think always of the sword.” Another regular at the Plantagenet playgroup, Lady Warwick, doesn’t even pretend that her young daughters aren’t for sale to upstart dukes and princes. “Do you think I married for love? One day he’ll be the king. Remember that.”
Though baby boys get all the fanfare, it’s the mothers and daughters of The White Queen who are trapped in a never-ending episode of “Toddlers & Tiaras,” with a kingdom-size trophy for the winner and beheadings for the alternates.
Comparisons to The Tudors, Showtime’s sexy costume series set 50 years and two generations later, are inevitable, and The White Queen invites a few, casting the reliably good James Frain as Richard Neville, better known as “Warwick the Kingmaker,” Edward IV’s string-pulling uncle.
The Tudors had Frain as royal meddler Thomas Cromwell, who, like Warwick, tried to keep the king away from troublesome women without peace treaties attached. And like The Tudors, The White Queen artfully condenses decades of familial slights and military campaigns.
Every scene delivers a confrontation, and a cast relatively fresh to American eyes prevents any “Mr. Darcy is kissing Hermione!” moments. Hollywood’s new dark-and-dangerous actor, Aneurin Barnard, chillingly nurses the slow paranoia that earned Richard, Duke of Gloucester, his own Shakespeare tragedy.
Eventually joining Richard on that same dark path is his childhood friend and cousin, Anne Neville. Anne (newcomer Faye Marsay) doesn’t appreciate being forced to marry the exiled prince of Wales so that her dad can unseat the king he “made” in the first place.
Through the eyes of Anne, Elizabeth, and a Margaret or two, The White Queen excavates women from history’s footnotes so that we can watch them shape England’s future.