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Television Review

‘The White Queen’ scratches the itch

Rebecca Ferguson and Max Irons star in the British period drama “The White Queen” on Starz.Ed Miller/Starz via ap

There are a few things to complain about when it comes to Starz’s new drama, “The White Queen.” Set amid the political chess game that was England’s 15th-century War of the Roses, the 10-part show does get awfully mired in melodrama. At moments, the whole thing seems to be just a series of heated-up royals and courtiers stage-whispering their political agenda to the person standing next to them — or, more likely, since this is Starz, the home of “Spartacus,” lying down next to them. The show is based on a few novels by Philippa Gregory, and bodices are most definitely ripped.

Also, if you don’t know the history very well, the epic struggle between the Lancasters, Yorks, and Tudors can seem complicated. The details aren’t required to follow the action, as they are on “Game of Thrones,” since the focus here is more on the women and the romance than on the specifics of the power struggles and what happened before the crown landed on King Edward IV’s head. But still, a little more explication and back story might have been in order.


And finally in the complaint department: If you watch “The White Queen,” which premieres Saturday night at 8, you may find yourself inserting “Your grace” after everything you say. The speech patterns of these lushly costumed characters are quite infectious. Thou shalt know what I mean if thou choosest to watch the show, your grace.

And you should choose to watch the show, if you are a fan of this kind of lusty royal romp. “The White Queen” is gauzier than “The Tudors,” and it contains more overacting; but it scratches the same itch. As a lover of most British period dramas, from the classier-than-thou ones to the cheese, I devoured the nine episodes that Starz sent for review. There were moments when I rolled my eyes — Amanda Hale, as the mother of young Henry Tudor, looks as if she is going to explode with ill intent. Really, her performance could be transposed into a Mel Brooks spoof. And the king’s brother Richard (Anuerin Barnard) is oddly dolled up to look like Edward Scissorhands. But overall, I managed to get a nice medieval royal buzz.


The White Queen is Elizabeth (Rebecca Ferguson), a commoner whose first husband was killed by Edward’s armies. She and Edward (Max Irons) fall into passionate love and marry, much to the chagrin of Edward’s counselor, Lord Warwick (a pouty James Frain). Elizabeth, with the support of her mother (Janet McTeer), and Warwick vie with each other for power over Edward, with Warwick’s daughters and Edward’s brothers also getting involved in the struggle. The issue of male heirs is, as always in royal period dramas, critical, since the women are generally only as important as the children they bear.

Meanwhile, Hale undergoes her crazy paroxysms of faith because she knows that God has chosen her son as the true king of England. I’ve enjoyed Hale in “The Crimson Petal and the White” and “Ripper Street,” but here she is far too theatrical and obvious.

As Elizabeth, Ferguson is lovely and commanding. She looks, at times, like a feckless flower child, but she can summon plenty of fury when necessary. I’m not sure she has a lot of range, but she does what she does — smile beatifically, sob, tend to her beloved, raise her head when people snub her — well enough. Irons, too, fits the part, making Edward’s true love for Elizabeth believable even while he continues to womanize. Looking like a young Tom Berenger, Irons, son of Jeremy Irons, plays Edward’s efforts to be just with a touching innocence. In this historical fever dream, your grace, he brings the right amounts of swagger and sincerity.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.