By Kearsten Clark
The 2003 production of ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre’s Warrior Queen is about Boudicca, pronounced boo-di-ka in the film, of the Iceni from East Anglia and the rebellion she led against the Roman invaders of Britain. Andrew Davies, the screen writer, had a great deal of fun with the lack of information about Boudicca, creating the Iceni queen to be the female equivalent to King Arthur and placing odd Viking tradition at whim. One might get the impression that Davies subscribes to the motto of Hollywood’s version of the historical films “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Warrior Queen though somewhat entertaining is not up to the standard of quality one expects to find in a production by Masterpiece Theatre, whose partner is in this reviewer’s humble opinion the greatest British historical filmmaking, the BBC.
The movie’s opening scene is of a tall muscular woman with flaming red hair, wearing a torque and pants driving a chariot to a great celebratory feast because of the Iceni’s victory over an enemy tribe; this scene allows the viewers to observe the warrior style of tribal life and introduces Boudicca as the wife of King Prasutagus and mother of two daughters Isolda and Siora. At this point the plot line becomes episodic, meaning that the film jumps from Boudicca to the Romans and from Britain to Rome, adding to our sense of the impending threat by Romans to the Celtic tribes of Britain. When Severus and Catus, Roman officials, meet with Prasutagus and Boudicca to construct an alliance between Rome and Iceni, or as Severus in so modern terms put it “play ball” the agreement to be a client king was settled but it goes against the fundamental warrior code as evidenced by Deralloc’s and Magior’s reaction of disdain. Domestic and foreign relations are quickly soured by the unrest of the Iceni people and the unquenchable demands of the Roman Empire: as Prasutagus said “you ask too much and you take too much.”
Just as tension between Prasutagus , the Iceni, and Roman policies are at breaking point both rulers Prasutagus and Emperor Claudius are poisoned by Magior and Agrippina (Nero’s mother) respectively. The film shows the death of these two rulers happening in a matter of weeks from each other and not years as the history books would have one believe. It is at this point, when leadership changes hands to Nero, that the final straw takes place for the Iceni and Boudicca. After a Roman pillaging for slaves occurs, the queen of the Iceni travels to the encampment of Catus to demand the release of the captives; she finds that Prasutagus left half of his kingdom to the Roman Emperor and half to his wife and daughters, but the Romans denied Boudicca the rights of a client king agreement. As a punishment for the “disloyalty” shown by Boudicca to Rome in the past Catus ruled that “the mother be flogged and the daughters be raped.” Following this outrageous offense, a magical scene that Merlin himself would have been pleased to have witnessed, Magior called forth a sword from the water that would bring victory to Boudicca’s revenge.
The Iceni warriors now preparing for the first attack on Catus and his encampment brings back Dervalloc, who had been away fighting the Romans elsewhere, as the romantic interest of Boudicca. During the attack Catus escapes and Dervalloc persuades Boudicca to make alliances for unity with the other tribes against their common enemy Rome. The next attack the film shows is that of the Roman colony of Camulodunum, which is the actual place where Boudicca first attacked the Romans; this assault is quite interesting with the underground tunnels that the warrior children used to sink the statue of the Claudius and then climb-out of to strike the most damage; also, this is when Catus is beheaded. The subsequent scene is in Rome with Nero asking Suetonius what should be done about Britain. The answer being that Rome should “leave Britain to the Britons “ did little to please Nero because he did not want the rest of the world thinking that “Rome couldn’t hack it anymore.”
Boudicca and her army are such miles away from London when word about Suetonius reaches them that London is left unprotected. Now the army can follow Suetonius or take London. Davies, at this point makes the argument that if the army had listened to Boudicca and gone after the Romans instead of taking London, she might have won despite the advantages of a professional army like Legionaries of Rome. Attention is focused for the last time in Rome with Agrippina raging about the attacks of Verulanmium and London when the poison Nero had given her takes effect and the “loving” son that Nero is calmly steps over her dead body.
Before the final battle commences, Boudicca and Suetonius discuss with their respective partners how tired they are of fighting and how they would like to see what it is like to live in peace. Suetoniun also asks about the injustices of the situation because the Celts are fighting for their lands and the Romans are fighting for professional pride. Each leader gives a pep-talk and the battle ensues. The scenes with the torches used to signal to the fighting soldiers the different position that Suetonius wanted was enlightening. Half way during the fight Boudicca and Suetonius had a parley in which surrender terms were proposed and promptly refused; the battle rages on until the Romans begin killing all the rebels that lay dying. Warrior Queen ends with Isolda being called forth and transported to what is modern England by Magior; with a voice-over of Boudicca saying “we don’t write our stories down, we live them” this line being Davies’ justification for the lack of historical research apparent in this production.
Alex Kingston, Dr. Elizabeth Corday of ER fame, gives as Boudicca gives an admirable performance in the face of desperately scanty script and the historical inaccuracies that plague Warrior Queen. Such strength and passion that is portrayed by Kingston that makes the movie worth watching at least once, especially the scene after she is flogged and her daughters are raped is very compelling; the pride of being a warrior that was ingrained in her mind, allows for nothing less than walking out of the Roman camp with head held high. With such fine actors as Kingston, Emily Blunt as Isolda, and Gary Lewis as Magior, not to mention the historical great story that Boudicca actually is, it is disappointing the queen of Iceni particularly with the talent they were given.
Davies’ approach to this project seems to disregard what information there is about Boudicca and Roman Britain and to make the screenplay as close to the Arthurian legend as possible; considering both of these aspects Davies achieved a triumph. The dialogue was even a hindrance: one could overlook the fact that everyone spoke with an English accent based on the principal of perceptions of the the class system but not with the modern colloquialisms, or the fact that London and not Londinium was used when other Roman city names were used, causing the illusion of realism the audience needs to stay engaged in the story to be abandoned.
Another amazing disregard for British history is the scene with Suetonius. Incredibly he made his way from Anglesey to Rome, then back again after hearing Nero’s instructions, all within a matter of minutes as shown by the film. Not to mention the fact that the Viking style funeral service for Prasutagus was held over the Celtic burial mounds, and that though Boudicca’s daughters names are unknown, they could have had more of a Celtic feel than those given. The war-paint used during the battle by Iceni was more often than not blue instead of white and spiked-up hair so that a 1980s punk rocker would be jealous. Also, Magior the Druid priest and advisor to Boudicca is a comparable version of Merlin.
Costuming and hair and make-up departments must have taken a note from Davies, because there too very little was accurate; the Iceni warriors wore their hair long and with beards unlike what was seen in the movie. From Tacitus’ description of Boudicca wearing bright colored clothing, one would assume that the Iceni or at least the upper class as it were, would have worn colors and jewelry not something out of The Clan of the Cave Bear or The Valley of Horses for a wardrobe.
Warrior Queen is one more example of a good intention turning quickly into a ghastly situation. The film becomes a comparison to the actual Boudiccan rebellion: both efforts were doomed from the start; however, Boudicca, by leaps and bounds, gave a better try to defeat the Romans than the filmmaker did not show her story. One would do better to read either M.J. Trow’s Boudicca: The Warrior Queen or Graham Webster’s Boudicca: The British Revolt against Rome A.D. 60 for the known story than to watch an hour and a half of this movie; if one does not view Warrior Queen from a historian’s view it can be entertaining but only if you are a novice to the history of Roman Britain.