For those a little rusty on their British history — specifically the War of the Roses — “The White Queen” offers up another handsome costume drama, about on the level of “The Tudors,” defined by its decidedly feminine perspective. Told largely through Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner and comely widow who wedded then-king Edward IV, the limited series features more than its share of bodice-ripping and betrayal, while zeroing in on the pressure on women to produce male heirs. All told, it’s a handsome acquisition for Starz, even if its dizzying array of characters yields diminishing returns in later chapters.
It’s 1464, as the houses of Lancaster and York continue to jockey over the English throne. Elizabeth (Rebecca Ferguson) has lost her husband in battle when she encounters young King Edward (Max Irons), who, despite heading the opposing faction, is instantly smitten. Her mother (Janet McTeer, in full, lustrous Lady Macbeth mode) instantly sees the advantageous prospects in having her daughter cozy up to the new monarch, much to the chagrin of his chief counselor, Lord Warwick (James Frain), a.k.a. the Kingmaker, who is planning a strategic match with France.
It gives away little to say Edward eventually makes Elizabeth his queen, which does nothing to quiet sniping or the jockeying for the throne, given the urgency around her producing a male heir. As Emma Frost and James Kent (who respectively wrote and directed the first three installments, working from Philippa Gregory’s books) repeatedly pound home, the women have to be more creative in their scheming, inasmuch as they are essentially viewed as props in the wars that men fight, there to be bartered, bedded and bred.
“We are their pieces on a board,” sighs Warwick’s elder daughter, Isabel (Eleanor Tomlinson), to her sister Anne (Faye Marsay).
Addressing these complexities, however, and incorporating the other tentacles of Gregory’s history eventually begin to dilute the story’s central thrust (and there’s a lot of thrusting) toward the end of the eight episodes previewed out of the 10-part run. That includes weaving in the concurrent tales of Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale), the mother of young Henry Tudor, who is convinced that God has designated her son, who has been separated from her, as the rightful king; and Anne, initially a pawn in her father’s machinations, who proves unexpectedly resourceful.
Throw in multiple challenges to Edward’s rule — including, but not limited to, members of his family — and the historical aspects begin to require their own annotated notes just to follow along.
That’s too bad, since there’s a lot to like in the early going, starting with McTeer, who not only can plot with the best of them but also dabbles in witchcraft. As for Ferguson and Irons, they’re fine, although the series does its principals a disservice by doing a poor job of aging them, until some of the parents start to look roughly the same age as their grown kids.
Clearly intent on making its programming budget go further, Starz has been aggressive and opportunistic about mining British costume dramas where the network can share in the production costs, for the most part with mixed results.
By that measure, “White Queen” is one of the more handsome and polished imports the premium service has offered. It’s just when set alongside the most impressive hours to cross the Pond that this elaborate game of thrones begins to look a little bit like a pretender.