Viewers will not have to wait until spring to get another dose of the middle ages. The White Queen, a BBC limited series picked up by Starz, chronicles the Wars of the Roses, which incidentally was an inspiration for George R. R. Martin when writing Game of Thrones. The White Queen is based on the book series The Cousins’ War, by author Philippa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl). It begins in 1464 just as Edward IV (Max Irons) rose to power as King of England after taking the throne from his cousin, Henry VI, and follows the course of York and Lancaster backstabbing that eventually leads to Richard III’s rule. Hit the jump for more on the series.
The White Queen is actually a nice coda to the upcoming PBS broadcast of the Shakespeare historical tetraology of plays The Hollow Crown, which chronicles the kings before Edward IV’s rise to power, and lays the groundwork for the Wars of the Roses. But while those plays focus entirely on the men of history (particularly Henry V), The White Queen follows three women who played very important roles of their own.
While the series’ first episode begins as a love story (and may turn more politically or war-minded viewers off), by the third episode, the machinations of the central women have lead to death, despair, and Kingmaking (sometimes literally). The first story is that of Elizabeth Woodville (a luminous Rebecca Ferguson), a widow (and possible witch) of moderate standing whose beauty immediately enraptures King Edward. It’s no spoiler to say that a wedding soon follows, but the road is not an easy one — Elizabeth was once married to a Lancaster man who died in battled against Edward, a York. But her mother (a scene-stealing Janet McTeer) is herself a kind of Lady McBeth, playing Queenmaker for her daughter.
Edward’s defiance of his cousin Richard Neville (James Frain) — a.k.a. the Earl of Warwick a.k.a. The Kingmaker — in marrying Elizabeth starts a schism between the York men that weaken their position against the Lancasters. As Elizabeth struggles to produce and son and heir for Edward, Warwick schemes to depose Edwards and replace him with his brother George (The Borgias‘ David Oakes), while his other brother, Richard III, waits silently in the wings.
Warwick, not having any sons, makes his daughters privy to his machinations, but also uses them as his political pawns, and part of the story is seen from their point of view. Elsewhere, Lady Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale), a religious zealot, weeps for the loss of Lancaster supremacy, and grooms her son Henry Tudor for a throne no one believes he will ever have (and yet, we know how that turns out).
The White Queen is beautifully shot and at times dizzyingly paced as it roars through history (it covers a great span of time in 9 episodes), and the only real complaint that can be lobbed against it is its questionable historical accuracy. There are costuming and background issues that have already been pulled apart by some, but the main affront is the series’ sterilized portrayal of 15th century England.
Still, for the blood and muck we have Game of Thrones, which despite being set in a fantasy world more accurately portrays the misery of the times than the stunningly clean romance-fantasy-England (or technically Belgium where it was shot) of The White Queen. The sex is strictly missionary, the blood minimal, and the battles nonexistent (at least in the first three episodes that I screened). There’s a great deal of scheming and marrying off of children, though, and viewers who stick with the show will be rewarded in later episodes as the intrigue deepens.
The White Queen is a worthy entry into the world of period dramas that include The Tudors and The Borgias (which Max Irons’ father Jeremy starred in), and its female perspective is a refreshingly new view of a time period well covered in television and film. The sanitized storytelling may not be for everyone, but those who are game for a gentle late-summer survey course that covers the years betweenThe Hollow Crown and the Tudors, well, God Save the Queen.
The White Queen premieres Saturday, August 10th at 8 p.m. on Starz