The English civil war—a struggle for the crown and titled lands that was fought between the houses of York and Lancaster—lasted 30 years (1455-1487). Dubbed the War of the Roses, it was a period in English history that could be as confusing as it was turbulent.
In The White Queen (2009), historical novelist Philippa Gregory tried to sort it all out by telling the story from the point of view of the women involved. As historical novelists are apt to do—even ones with PhDs—she took some liberties with the facts, spiced it up, and engaged in creative speculation to illuminate history’s dark corners. The result was fascinating enough to entice BBC One to make a 10-episode miniseries out of it, and if her name sounds familiar, you may know Gregory from another novel of hers that was adapted for film—The Other Boleyn Girl.
“The White Queen,” a lavish production which aired on BBC One and Starz last year, introduced audiences to newcomer Rebecca Ferguson, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of the central character, Elizabeth Woodville—a mid-tier member of English aristocracy from the House of Lancaster who married the York king, Edward IV, after her first husband was killed in battle.
Though the miniseries is about an extended war, there really isn’t much in the way of graphic violence. The camera cuts away before the axe cuts into the head or before a blade falls a soldier. There’s more political scheming than there is actual combat. There’s not much language, either, for the F word wasn’t exactly a staple of the 15th century. But we do get nudity, and lots of it.
HBO all but dictated that TV dramas now have to be “edgy”—meaning, they have to have violence, nudity, and rough language—and we probably see more of Ferguson’s breasts than we do of the English (Belgian, actually) countryside. The nudity and graphic sex may be gratuitous, but Elizabeth doesn’t just bewitch Edward. She captivates viewers as well. So does her mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg (Janet McTeer), who’s as accomplished a schemer and manipulator as anyone viewers have encountered on PBS or BBC. Historians may wince at scenes in which she instructs her daughter to dabble in the dark arts in order to change the course of history, but it does infuse the narrative with a little energy.
Though “The White Queen” is all about lords and ladies and peasants are ignored, it still has a kind of “Downton Abbey” vibe to it in terms of the way the scenes are constructed and given the emphasis on intrigue and interpersonal conflicts.
Ferguson is the standout, but the acting across the board is pretty solid. Amanda Hale is convincing as the devout Lady Margaret Beaufort, whose son Henry Tudor is in line for the throne if the House of Lancaster should prevail, and Max Irons is suitably smitten as King Edward. While James Frain seems slightly over-the-top villainous as Lord Warwick—as if he took his cue from Rufus Sewell’s performance in “A Knight’s Tale”—Anne Neville, as his daughter, acts from a believable emotional center, and she turns out to be the third woman of importance in the series. Once she is married to Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Aneurin Barnard) both of their roles expand.
Whether you know this historical period or not, “The White Queen” tells a complex story in a way that makes everything seem more accessible. The production has a richly textured look to it, and the story (and focus) shifts so quickly that it keeps you involved.
“The White Queen” runs 580 minutes and would be rated R for violence, nudity, and simulated sexual intercourse with fully nude bodies thrusting away.
“The White Queen” looks terrific in HD, presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio and sporting a color palette that’s brighter than most would have chosen for a film set in the 1400s, with nicely amped-up black levels and edge detail that creates a sense of depth. I saw no problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer.
The featured English Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 has a strong presence that handles silences as well as frenetic moments. Rear speakers are nicely involved, though don’t expect too much from the subwoofer. Spanish Stereo 2.0 is offered as an additional audio option, and subtitles are in Spanish and English for the deaf and hearing impaired.
“The White Queen” Blu-ray comes with a UV copy. Disc features include an interesting “Making of” feature, a series overview for the hopelessly lost, a revealing feature on “Book to Series,” and a decent historical overview in “The History behind The White Queen.” Lesser features but still of interest are a set tour and character featurettes on Queen Elizabeth, King Edward IV, The Heir Apparent, and Women in a Man’s World, as well as “Conjuring up the White Queen” and “Dressing the Queen.” Fans should appreciate this package of bonus features.
The intricate plotting is not hard to follow as long as you can keep the players in this drama straight in your head. If you can do that, and if you can brush aside concerns about historical accuracy (including a 15th century that seems a lot cleaner than you’d expect), “The White Queen” is a rewarding experience.