This Starz series makes 15th-century politics feel contemporary, thanks to a stellar performance from Jodie Comer as Elizabeth of York.
A scheming queen, a suspicious court, and an uncertain young king — it’s all been done before. But The White Princess, Starz’s follow-up to the 2013 miniseries The White Queen, both of which are based on Philippa Gregory’s series of novels chronicling the War of the Roses and its aftermath, manages to make even 15th-century politics feel contemporary.
Perhaps that’s giving too much credit to a series dramatizing — sometimes to a wildly ludicrous degree — the events that led to more than a century of one family’s rule over England, an era that’s generated dozens of lavish costume dramas and, of course, influenced Game of Thrones, that singular, mighty medieval epic that continues to reign. But while The White Princess shares cast members from Thrones (as Lady Margaret Beaufort, Michelle Fairley again plays a mother looking after her newly crowned son who faces formidable foes), the series grounds itself in the journey of its titular heroine with a sharp understanding of a new queen’s difficult, often precarious position.
And that’s where the series blossoms. Jodie Comer’s bold, brave Elizabeth of York, called “Lizzie,” isn’t just a royal princess or pawn to be played over England’s future. She’s a young woman who begins her story on the losing side, having been (just go with it) in love with Richard III, who falls during the Battle of Bosworth and leaves the throne to Henry VII (Jacob Collins-Levy) of the Tudor line. But because she had been betrothed to the winner, Lizzie has to brace herself to become the wife of a man she loathes, whose family just defeated hers. It’s a period of transition for a powerful country — again, 15th-century politics can feel contemporary — illustrated through Lizzie’s own coming-of-age.
Comer, mostly unknown to American audiences but a rising star in the U.K., imbues Lizzie with a steely resolve and an endearing vulnerability from the start. In the four episodes screened for critics, she’s poised and regal, yet wary and uncomfortable with her surroundings as she evolves from the angry, revenge-seeking daughter of Elizabeth Woodville (the manipulative and magical protagonist of The White Queen, now played by the inimitable Essie Davis) to the capable, enigmatic wife making Henry bend to her will.
Apart from Comer, it’s Fairley and Davis, as the royal mothers attempting to pull the strings behind the new king and queen, who lend the series a much-needed gravitas, especially when it veers into soapy territory — which The White Princess does often. That shouldn’t be a surprise to any fans of The White Queen or Philippa Gregory novels, of course — frankly, there’s far more bodice-ripping in her other page-to-screen adaptations, namely The Other Boleyn Girl — but some of the overly juicy storylines detract from otherwise engaging political intrigue. Do we really need a subplot about Lady Margaret and Jasper Tudor’s (Vincent Regan) forbidden love when Lady Margaret’s machinations over her son, the king, are much more interesting to watch? Shouldn’t her battle of wits against Elizabeth be enough to prove how she may say she loves God but has no shame in committing treacherous sins?
Still, The White Princess‘ biggest fault is one that also plagued The White Queen. With years of history to burn through in a smattering of episodes, the story condenses conflict into clunky dialogue, rushes through battles with messy montages, and worst of all, crudely groups its central players into black-and-white, good-or-evil categories. Only Lizzie and Henry voice their concerns about their place in charting England’s course — and they do so more frequently than their advisers would like. Everyone else is in it for themselves, loyal to an absurd degree to their own houses. Sometimes, that loyalty is portrayed with broad, heavy-handed strokes, subtext be damned; in fact, one scene has the women literally using a chessboard to illustrate their political marriage goals, labeled pawns and all.
But that’s the key: It’s the women using that chessboard and weaponizing their marriages. When Henry forces himself on Lizzie in the pilot because he wants to make sure she’s “fertile” before marrying her, he expects her to do as he pleases. “You think you have a choice?” he asks. “You think you have free will?” She thinks so, and so she wields it even when it looks like she has no choice. She’s the one who lifts her skirt. To borrow a phrase from another (albeit fictional) royal, Lizzie’s skin turns from porcelain to ivory to steel as she navigates life as a monarch — and that’s a journey worth watching. B+
The White Princess debuts Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.