Television review

‘White Queen’ a credible British bodice-ripper

The White Queen, which debuts Saturday on Starz, was co-produced with the BBC and began airing in Great Britain in June. Curious about its reception there, and even more curious about whether any British critic might have written something I could steal, I looked up the review in the London newspaper The Independent. Here’s a quote:

“I’m sure it will give innocent pleasure to many, but a lot of cod had to sacrifice their wallops to make it possible.”

To which I can only quote Whoopi Goldberg in Jumpin’ Jack Flash: “Mick, Mick, Mick. Speak English!”

There being no apparent alternative to my actually writing the review, I must confess that I don’t understand the continuing American fascination with the foibles of European royalty, both in real life (Look! Look! Wills’ and Kate’s baby just blinked!) and on television.

The latter manifests itself in a genre that might be called Bedding & Beheading, in which luscious costumes and severed limbs fly in all directions as various pretty heirheads boink and eviscerate one another, not necessarily in that order. The Tudors, The Borgias, even — if you’re willing to include a little dragon sex — Game of Thrones, TV is rife with the stuff.

Within that category, you could do worse than The White Queen, based on the bestselling series of bodice-ripping historical novels by Philippa Gregory. The show stars near the beginning of the War of the Roses, a series of civil wars fought between rival English dynasties during the 15th century. For 30 years, the royal houses of York (heraldic symbol: the white rose) and Lancaster (heraldic symbol: the red rose) spilled blood and despoiled maidens at a pace that makes the Ewings of Dallas look like Trappist monks.

The good guys in The White Queen, as you might deduce from the title, are the Yorks. And as you might further deduce, they aren’t guys at all. The White Queen is, in its own addled way, a feminist fable. (“Men go to battle, women wage war” is the show’s promotional tagline.) All the heavy lifting is done by the female characters.

At the center of all the machinations is Elizabeth Woodville, a plucky commoner who wins the heart of the Yorkie King Edward IV by threatening to cut her own throat before he can rape her. (Talking about playing hard to get.) He promptly marries her, which stirs up all manner of evil plotting by Anne Neville, the daughter of the king’s evil advisor, and Margaret Beaufort, the really evil wife of the Lancaster king.

Does it sound like everybody is ganging up on poor Elizabeth and her magnificent and frequently exposed bosom? Don’t worry. I may have forgotten to mention her mom, Jacquetta, is a witch, by which I do not mean a rhyming word that begins with B, but an actual witch who can turn people into frogs and stuff.

She’s played, in a wily performance that recalls the work of Helen Mirren, by Janet McTeer, whose roles in imported PBS costume dramas as well as a brief run as a villainess on DirecTV’s Damages make her the only member of the cast familiar to American audiences.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the work of her younger colleagues (Rebecca Ferguson, Faye Marsay and Amanda Hale). Each of them stabs backs and pops bodice buttons with the necessary élan while keeping a straight face at The White Queen’s putative moral, which is that arranged marriages are corrupt and evil, while those born of attempted rape, self-mutilation and suicide are sacred and empowering. I wonder what Kate and Wills think.

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