Hidden and Patient: The White Princess is no shy rose
A show like The White Princess presents a unique challenge when it comes to advance reviews – none of the major plot points are spoilable because you can find them in history books or Wikipedia (not to mention the novel itself, penned by Philippa Gregory). But for the most part those historical accounts are from the male perspective. Men were making the speeches. Men were making the laws. Men were making the wars. Men were writing the histories of the above.
And here is where The White Princess proves spoiler-worthy: it asks, what were women doing while men were making speeches and laws and wars?
As The White Princess begins, we are in the immediate aftermath of the Wars of the Roses, a series of wars for control of the throne of England fought between supporters of two rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet: the House of Lancaster (associated with a red rose), and the House of York (whose symbol was a white rose).
We are introduced Elizabeth of York (called “Lizzie” to differentiate herself from her mother, Elizabeth Woodville) as she reels from the news that her betrothed, King Richard III, has been killed in battle and she is now betrothed to the new king, Henry VII.
Confused? Don’t worry, at this point all you really need to understand is that Lizzie has lost her beloved and is being forced to marry the new king despite the fact that his family killed most of the men in her family so that he could ascend the throne.
It may also help to view The White Princess as both a sequel and a prequel: Lizzie is the daughter of King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth Woodville, whose story is told in The White Queen, the 2013 series also based on a Philippa Gregory novel. Lizzie and her husband, King Henry VII, are the parents of Henry VIII and grandparents of Elizabeth I, whose story is told on screen in The Tudors and Elizabeth.
Jodi Comer anchors the series with a layered, engaging portrayal of Lizzie. Over the course of the first four episodes, we watch Comer play a young woman caught in a real life game of thrones, her sole purpose to solidify a king’s – and his family’s – claim to rule England. She is scheming and manipulative, fiercely loyal, occasionally naive, sometimes petulant, but most of all, she is relatable.
Initially a pawn, Lizzie quickly reveals a warrior streak of her own. In the premiere episode, she delivers a speech about her intentions as wife of the new king that is as much a war cry as anything we’ve seen on the battlefield. At one point her new mother-in-law informs her that her motto will be “humble and penitent.” No, she later tells her own mother, her motto is “hidden and patient…I will pretend to be a dutiful wife, but I will fight them and they will not even know it.”
Her first intimate encounter with Henry VII is provocative in a way that’s sure to have people talking about motives and agency and control. When she delivers an heir to the throne, she undergoes a subtle shift that ultimately changes the fate of a nation. It’s a nuanced performance delivered with confidence.
As Henry VII, newcomer Jacob Collins-Levy is the series strongest male character. After decades of battle and thousands of lives lost, Henry has finally ascended the throne. He’s determined to fulfill the destiny his mother (Michelle Fairley) has plotted and schemed for him since birth. Faced with constant threats to his life and a wife he can’t trust but needs on his side, Henry struggles to find his footing as King of the Britons.
Collins-Levy does a fine job of showing us how complicated Henry’s life is, this new king trying to unite a war-torn country and secure his throne by producing an heir. For all that Lizzie’s life is not her own, Henry has some claim to the same complaint. However he does truly want to be a good king, to lead his people to peace and prosperity. It’s only when he begins listening more to his wife than his mother that he learns how to be the ruler of a nation rather than the contender to the throne.
Speaking of mothers…Fairley, as Margaret, Mother of the King, and Essie Davis (MISS FISHER!!!), as Elizabeth Woodville, mother of Lizzie and a former Queen herself, engage in a battle royale throughout the beginning of Henry’s reign. Margaret is determined to secure Henry’s position while Elizabeth seeks to use Lizzie to bring down the house of Tudor so one of her hidden sons can restore the throne to the house of York. The scenes between these two fairly crackle with energy; they are a joy to watch.
Also of note are Suki Waterhouse and Rebecca Benson. Waterhouse plays Cecily of York, Lizzie’s next youngest sister and a schemer in her own right. Initially I was wary of her, concerned that jealousy would be her character’s only trait, but I was wrong. She is jealous, absolutely, but there’s more to Cecily than envying her sister’s marriage to Henry.
Benson plays Margaret Plantagenet whose young brother, Teddy, is a very real threat to Henry’s claim to the throne. She is meek and timid and wishes above all else that she were NOT a Plantagenet so she could live a quiet life away from powerful people scheming and using her as a pawn. A true friend to Lizzie, Maggie, as she prefers to be called, tries to support her cousin in her new life. When Maggie’s brother is locked in the Tower after peasants call him the true King, Benson plays Maggie’s grief and desperation to heartbreaking effect. Although she spends much of the initial four episodes in tears and/or pleading for her brother’s life, by the end I wonder if she’s begun to realize that she can play the game herself.
I could go on and on about other characters and plots – The White Princess is packed with interesting stories, stand-out performances, beautiful people, gorgeous costumes juxtaposed against stark castle walls, scheming, and yes, even romance.
Come for all of that, but stay for the portrayal of history through the lens of the women behind the throne, orbiting around the king, engaged in their own scheming and machinations.
The White Princess premieres Sunday, April 16 at 8/7c on Starz.