Saturday, August 10, 2013

Pilot Review: The White Queen

The White Queen (Saturdays at 8:00 on Starz; Premieres August 10)

I will start by admitting that The White Queen isn't really in my wheelhouse. I may be in the minority, but I don't get into shows like The Tudors, The Borgias, or even Game of Thrones. Costume heavy period dramas just aren't my thing. So I was probably predestined to not like Starz's latest offering, a co-production with the BBC, though that didn't stop me from sitting through the first episode of the series, set during the Wars of the Roses in pre-Tudor England. The good news for you: if you like the shows mentioned above, particularly the first two, then you can stop reading now and trust that you will also enjoy The White Queen. But I didn't, so I don't.

There is a war for the throne of England raging between the House of York and the House of Lancaster; the former has produced the new King, Edward IV (Max Irons), and the latter obviously aren't happy about it. Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson) goes to the King to request land owed to her following her husband's death in the war. The King falls in love with Elizabeth and marries her in secret, much to the disappointment of almost everyone except Elizabeth's mother Jacquetta, Lady Rivers (Janet McTeer, Oscar nominee for Tumbleweeds and Albert Nobbs), who sees the marriage as a power play. There are two other women vying for the throne as well, Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale, Ripper Street) and Anne Neville (Faye Marsay), and a slew of other relatives and nobles.

I would love to tell you what The White Queen is about, but there's so little plot in the first hour that that would be impossible. It's more plodding than plotting, and by that I mean that there is little drive in the direction and presentation. So far this is not a show that cares about telling a story so much as it cares about throwing characters on screen and having them talk to each other a lot. The major event in this episode is the marriage of Elizabeth and Edward, which happens roughly halfway through; everything afterward is a tedious conversation of who and when to tell. There are obviously some political machinations going on here, but there were so many characters to keep straight (as is almost always the case in these period pieces) that I couldn't deduce much of it. I know that James Frain (True Blood, The Tudors) plays the Earl of Warwick who isn't happy that Edward chose to marry Elizabeth rather than Margaret, a French princess. So they yell at each other for a little while. And Edward's mother, Duchess Cecily (Caroline Goodall), is pissed off too, though she doesn't yell at her son but at her new daughter-in-law and her mother. That's about it: people yell about getting married. Actually, that's not entirely it. There's a lot of obligatory nudity and sex too.

The White Queen isn't all bad though. The performances are good, sometimes even great. Ferguson is magnetically beautiful (as is everyone, nary a dirty face or missing tooth in sight), and Irons makes a charming Edward whose good looks are about in line with the One Direction kids. McTeer is a powerful force in her scenes, bringing a maturity and gravitas to the cast. The cinematography is gorgeous, particularly in the first half hour or so when there are several key outdoor scenes, though the opening scene is eerily similar, nearly identical in fact, to the first scene in the Game of Thrones pilot. The costumes are predictably beautiful, and there are an abundance of them already. No, The White Queen excels on a technical and practical level. It's the storytelling that is lacking, as well as its instant feeling of familiarity. Prior to The Tudors coming to television, costume dramas were rare; since then, there have been a glut of series similar to it hitting the air. And The White Queen hits everything on the checklist: historical inaccuracies for the sake of attractiveness, unnecessary nudity, sweaty sex scenes, familial backstabbing, strained elements of magic, impossibly good-looking cast, complicated lineage, political maneuvering, war. Really the only thing that makes The White Queen stand out from any of its predecessors is that it focuses on the time period through the experiences of women. I've never read any of Philippa Gregory's novels (three of which this series is adapted from), but I'm familiar with her enough to know that that's her MO. I have, however, seen the film adaptation of her novel The Other Boleyn Girl, and The White Queen is, happily, already better than that was, but I digress. What it really comes down to is that if you like this kind of thing, then The White Queen will be a fine addition to your television-viewing schedule. I don't typically like this style of show, and The White Queen didn't do anything to change that.

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