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"The White Queen": Bring an Encyclopedia, Brace Yourself for Exposition

By Sarah Carlson | TV Reviews | August 29, 2013 | Comments ()


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“The White Queen,” a BBC and Starz miniseries, is more interesting for the history it covers — the Wars of the Roses — than for how it covers it. The Tudors, the ultimate winners (historical spoiler alert?) of the 15th century dynastic wars between the houses of Lancaster and York, rivals within the House of Plantagenet, get most of the pop culture glory thanks to Henry VIII and daughter Elizabeth I. We (at least in the U.S.) tend to forget about this ridiculous real-life “Game of Thrones,” in which siblings and cousins and way too many Richards, Edwards and Henrys all vie for the crown. Most everyone is drooling over the chance of reigning, no matter if the current sovereign happens to be a relative. “The White Queen’s” problem, however, is how much ground it tries to cover. Beginning in 1464 and ending in 1485, the 10-part series flies through battles, betrothals and betrayals so quickly, I found myself often pausing and consulting the Wikipedia pages for different figures, not to mention studying the confusing family tree. There’s a lot to follow, and if you don’t pay attention or already know your history, “Queen” offers little more to enjoy than pretty people in pretty costumes. The U.S. version airing on Starz contains more nudity, however, if that entices you to tune in, but nothing on the level of Showtime’s series “The Tudors.” Come for the love scenes; try to overlook the anachronisms (drain pipes, zippers, etc.).

The list of players is too long to detail here, but “The White Queen,” based on a series of novels by author Philippa Gregory, primarily focuses on three Lancastrian and Yorkist women:

Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson)

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Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale)

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Anne Neville (Faye Marsay, on the left)

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They form the backbone of the larger narrative and in this way, In addition to “The Tudors,” “Queen” is somewhat reminiscent of “Game of Thrones,” especially the latter’s most recent season. The role of women of this age isn’t easy, not even for royals. To not only survive but succeed requires walking a fine line of doing what you’re told while still looking out for your own interests (read: neck). Women easily are used as pawns, especially in marriage (the men don’t always have a say, either), and their lives aren’t necessarily easier when they realize it. A marriage for love is what sparks much of “The White Queen’s” conflicts, as King Edward IV (Max Irons), of House York, chooses the older and widowed Elizabeth Woodville, of House Lancaster, to be his queen. This goes against not only the logic of the time but of the wishes of his main advisor, Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick (James Frain), known as “the Kingmaker.”

Warwick’s daughters, Anne and Isabel (Eleanor Tomlinson), find themselves used as pawns in their father’s eventual schemes against Edward, and if I can be permitted one more “Game of Thrones” reference, Isabel can be likened to Sansa Stark, an initially naïve girl who only realizes her marriage to one of Edward’s brothers, George, Duke of Clarence (David Oakes), is a political maneuver after the marriage is uncomfortably consummated. Anne is much more keen to play the requisite games, and her sights are set on the final brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Aneurin Barnard), who will become Richard III, recently back in the news. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is loyal to her husband and to her new house (York), and in the series at least, she and her mother Jacquetta, Lady Rivers (Janet McTeer), have a bit of fun with witchcraft to get their way. Margaret is loyal to the Lancastrian king Henry VI, deposed by Edward IV. She also wants her son, Henry Tudor (Michael Marcus), to one day be king.

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(From left, Richard, Edward and George)

The family tree is way too complicated to explain further, and again, considering how quickly the TV series moves through storylines, name tags would have been helpful. The series’ dialogue and performances are not as stilted as many expect in costume dramas, where caricatures are often presented in place of characters, but not enough time is given to any individual to earn a viewer’s allegiance. The women are the strongest, especially Hale, an actress who for whatever reasons has been on a roll playing religious and somewhat unhinged characters, from “The Crimson Petal and the White” to “Ripper Street.” Ferguson and Irons deliver impressive chemistry, and it is easy to side with Elizabeth and her family thanks to Ferguson’s convincing performance. But “The White Queen” lacks an overall spark, offering only an introduction to a fascinating piece of history that, given time and better resources, could have been presented in a far grander manner. It’s not enough to cram exposition into scenes to try to explain why a battle is being waged; you have to help us understand it, to feel it. Bringing these stories to our cultural consciousness is important, but mostly “Queen” plops its viewers into the middle of the action and expects each of them to just go with whatever happens. That’s fine, in a way. The miniseries can be, to borrow a phrase from Alan Ball, “popcorn for smart people.” But oh, it could have been more.

“The White Queen” airs at 9/8C Saturdays on Starz.

Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • ZombieMrsSmith

    I watched this on BBC over the Summer while in Spain (needed English language TV ya'll!) and still haven't seen the last two eps. I enjoyed it for the most part. I did resort to Wikipedia to learn more about the history and characters. I've actually been to Bosworth Field, it was full of cows at the time.

    Also, did you know Aneurin Barnard (Richard III) was being considered as the new Doctor Who?

  • L.O.V.E.

    First of all, its called "sexposition". Secondly, I am very interested in what these very talented and engrossing people have to say (while naked).

  • mrsdalgliesh

    She said "Ripper Street." Which is a cue for all of you who have not seen it to go see it. Streaming on Netflix, people. Finish the first season before the second starts in January.

  • $27019454

    Now is the winter of my discontent, bitches!!

    This stuff is ...it's....GHAAAHHHH!! I LIVE for this shit. Elizabeth Woodville is a righteous bitch who kept the name of her enemies written in blood on a slip of paper kept in a box (or locket, depending on your biographer of choice). I LOVE that.

  • emmalita

    If ever a line was meant to end in 'bitches.'

  • PDamian

    I've read a number of Phillipa Gregory's novels (although not the ones on which The White Queen is based), and they're enjoyable, but as history, they suffer from many, MANY inaccuracies. While I don't mind a little artistic license, I do object to wholesale fabrication. And truly, the history of the Plantagenets is far too interesting to require gussying up, so I'll pass. Too bad. Margaret Beaufort's story alone is worth an entire miniseries.

  • $27019454

    My dream is for Antonia Fraser to write the War of the Roses. What she did for the Tudors and for Charles II (my personal royal crush) is amazing.

  • $27019454

    Or Hilary Mantel. That would be good too! David Stark, maybe??

  • PaddyDog

    Hilary Mantel! Now we're talking.

  • PDamian

    Oh, good grief ... Hilary Mantel. The new gold standard for historical novels. I am loving her books about Thomas Cromwell.

  • emmalita

    *Wimper* those books are 3 down on my to read list. Must read faster!

  • I prefer Sharon Kay Penman. She has written some very compelling, and well researched novels about the Plantagenets. My favorites are "When Christ and His Saints Slept" about Maude vs. Stephen and "The Sunne in Splendor" about Richard III. Definitely worth a look.

  • Emm82

    Absolutely love Penmans Plantagenet books, they are all such a good read!

  • GIjanie

    Yes! I read a lot of historical fiction and Penman's books are my favorite.

  • The book she did on Richard the Lionheart is a decent read as well.

  • PDamian

    Oh, my ... reading recommendations and a long weekend ahead of me. THANK YOU!!!

  • You are so welcome! I hope you enjoy them! :)

  • BWeaves

    Sounds like a DVD watch to me. I need the English subtitles, just so I can catch everyone's names.

  • $27019454

    Have a family tree graphic handy as well. it is the most confusing saga!

  • Carrie/Teabelly

    I wasn't going to bother with this and then I found myself on a train in need of entertainment. I ended up really enjoying it. And I liked going to look stuff up later. Definitely more popcorn than proper history but I didn't mind at all. It's crazy how much went on back then. Even when all is quiet someone will go 'let's attack France!'

    Also, quite enjoyed Max Irons. Ahem.

  • Edward Buchanan

    This is exactly how I feel about The White Queen. I found it entertaining and enjoyable, and didn't worry too much about the series being historically accurate.

    https://www.facebook.com/White...

  • amylu

    In addition to Max Irons, I am enjoying Aneurin Barnard quite a lot, too.

  • Tarn

    Irons is definitely enjoyable to watch. But Barnard gave me a wiggins. He looked like Sweeney Todd had used some Grecian 2000.

  • Marc Greene

    My mother-in-law recommended it to my wife and I and we watched one episode. All I could think is "Why is nearly every piece of dialogue exposition? Do the other characters not understand the world they live in?". It is sad that my review could basically be summed up as "Game of Thrones is better - not because of the fantastical elements, but because of the human ones" People speak more like real people and are much more well defined than those (real!) characters of White Queen. Weird.

  • BWeaves

    I recently watched an old British miniseries on some other branch of the royal family, and it was like this, too. It just touched on the known highpoints of history, and every character said things like, "You know me, I'm your brother's wife's cousin. I have to say X to you now."

  • PaddyDog

    In fairness, it doesn't aim to give you any history. It's from the "bodice ripper history light" genre that has made Gregory millions and convinced people such as my mother-in-law that they superior to soap opera watchers.

  • $27019454

    Yeah I am not sure she is ever marketed as biography or history. Can you imagine getting paid to do the research she gets to do?? My God.

  • Mrs. Julien

    Philippa Gregory novels would be a step up from what I've been reading. I feel so deliciously vulgar.

  • wyndhamchomsky47wg

    мy coυѕιɴ ιѕ мαĸιɴɢ $51/нoυr oɴlιɴe. υɴeмployed ғor α coυple oғ yeαrѕ αɴd prevιoυѕ yeαr ѕнe ɢoт α $1З619cнecĸ wιтн oɴlιɴe joв ғor α coυple oғ dαyѕ. ѕee мore αт....­ ­ViewMore----------------------...

    She said "Ripper Street." Which is a cue for all of you who have not seen it to go see it. Streaming on Netflix, people. Finish the first season before the second starts in January.

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