When I discovered that there was a film about the Celtic queen Boudica starring Alex Kingston and Emily Blunt, I got really excited, since they’re both actresses I like a lot. Sadly, even their combined acting skills weren’t enough to save this not-very-well written film.
Trigger Warning: This post discusses rape.
The Historical Boudica
Everything we know about Boudica and her famous rebellion against the Romans derives from two Roman historians, Tacitus (who mentions her in two works, the Agricola and the Annals) and Dio Cassius. Tacitus got his information from his father-in-law, Julius Agricola, and so his accounts are generally considered more reliable than Dio’s, which only survives in a summary.
The Romans conquered lowland Britain in 43 AD, while Claudius was emperor. During the conquest, they allied themselves to King Prasutagus of the Iceni, a tribe that occupied roughly modern Norfolk. Apart from a brief rebellion against the Romans in 47 AD, the Iceni were faithful allies. Prasutagus made a will in which he left his kingdom jointly to his two daughters and to Rome.
Unfortunately for the Iceni, when Prasutagus died, perhaps in 60 AD or a little before, the Romans chose to ignore this arrangement and directly incorporate the Iceni into the Empire. A number of the Iceni were enslaved, his queen Boudica was flogged and his daughters raped.
In 60 or 61, when the Roman governor of the province, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, was leading a campaign in modern-day Wales, the Iceni and other British tribes rose in revolt. They conquered the poorly-defended Camulodunum (modern Colchester) and completely destroyed the town. The 9th Legion attempted to intervene, but the Iceni almost completely destroyed the legion as well.
Suetonius made the strategic decision to not try to defend Londinium (modern London), and as a result the Britons brutally sacked it, impaling the noble women of the city on spikes with their breasts cut off and sewn into their mouths. The city of Verulamium (St Albans) suffered a similar fate.
While Boudica was sacking these towns, Suetonius was gathering his forces, and the two forces eventually met at an unknown location, probably in the West Midlands. Boudica’s forces appear to have severely outnumbered the Romans, but Suetonius took up a strong defensive position and (at least in the surviving Roman accounts) employed superior tactics. The result was a devastating defeat for the Britons.
Exactly what happened to Boudica is unclear. In the Annals, Tacitus says she poisoned herself, while in the Agricola, he says only that the rebellion fizzled out, but says nothing of how she died. Dio Cassius says she fell sick, died, and was lavishly buried before the Iceni were defeated. Given that sudden illness was often suspected to be due to poisoning, the two accounts are not incompatible. But it seems fairly clear that Boudica survived the battle and died sometime afterwards. The ultimate defeat of her people was probably due to a combination of the loss of her leadership and their loss at the main battle of the rebellion.
English interest in Boudica grew considerably in the later 19th and 20th centuries, when she was celebrated as something of a noble savage and a warrior queen (her name, coincidentally, means the same thing that ‘Victoria’ does, which naturally made her a popular metaphor for Queen Victoria.
Boudica (released in the US as Warrior Queen, 2003, dir. Bill Anderson) is the story of a scriptwriter, Andrew Davies, who is much better at adapting other people’s work than he is at writing his own original scripts. Overall, the script feels like it was written by a college student who took a script-writing class as an elective. Agrippina actually utters the line, “You’re magnificent in your wroth, Nero!” No one ever utters the word ‘wroth’ outside of crappy scripts.
The film follows the basic outline of Boudica’s story, although it doesn’t really provide much context for the events. It begins while Prasutagus is alive (although he seems much younger than the historical king would have been), and more or less ends after the battle with Suetonius, without any clear explanation of what happened to Boudica. So the film generally gets the basic facts right. The problem lies mostly in the way the script is written, rather than what it presents as facts.
The film can’t really decide how to handle Celtic women. It wants them to be clichéd ‘fiery-haired Irish women’, and at the start of the film Boudica (Alex Kingston) seems to already be a warrior, as if this was normal for the Celts (which it wasn’t; Celtic women were expected to stand on the sidelines at battles and shout encouragements to their husbands rather than fighting on their own). But Arcon, the leader of another British tribe, ridicules the idea of female leaders. The script is using this as a way to generate some dramatic tension, but it feels like Davies is trying to eat his cake and have it too—the Iceni have female warriors and queens, but the other tribes don’t.
The characters also speak in a very modern style, making references to ‘economies of scale’ and the Iceni wanting to ‘be left alone to follow their religion’ and things like that. The uncharitable interpretation would be that Davies simply can’t write his own dialogue, but given that he’s written a number of well-received adaptations, let’s be more charitable and suppose that he was trying to imitate Robert Graves. In Graves’ I Claudius and Claudius the God, the Romans speak in deliberately anachronistic ways. Graves was trying to cut through the fussy archaic language 19th century writers often employed to make Roman characters sound old-fashioned and make his characters more immediate to the audience. Sadly, Graves was a brilliant author and poet, and Davies isn’t. So his characters just get to say tinny dialogue.
Both Tacitus and Dio give versions of the speech Boudica said before the final battle (both versions certainly invented), but, as always happens, the script-writer decided he could come up with something better, and wound up with something more clichéd instead. It’s maddening to see so many interesting historical speeches abandoned in favor of modern crap.
As already noted, the film’s dialogue is generally pretty bad, so bad that even solid actresses like Kingston and Emily Blunt (who plays Boudica’s daughter Isolda) can’t do much with the lines they’re given. But the film doesn’t stop at bad dialogue. It just employs so much silliness, it’s depressing to realize that Davies wrote this as a serious script, with multiple drafts.
In an apparently attempt to generate tension, the film includes several scenes set at the Roman court. These scenes don’t actually go anywhere; they could easily have been omitted without affecting the overall narrative, but that would have made for a much shorter film. The script ignores the issue of messages taking months to travel between Rome and Britain, so the Roman court gets word of things that seemingly just happened in Britain, and orders are sent out that influence events immediately following. That’s a minor sin. But the film also just ignores all plausibility. Agrippina (Francis Barber) actually poisons Claudius in the middle of his court, and everyone just ignores the fact that he’s just mentioned how strange the drink she’s giving him tastes.
This film wants you to know how decadent Nero (Andrew-Lee Potts) is. He’s way too much eye shadow and purple neckerchiefs decadent. He’s French-kissing his mother in front of the imperial court decadent. He’s violently boning his mother decadent. He’s filling his court with people whose main job is to lounge around the imperial court having sex decadent. He’s poisoning his own mother and then stepping over her corpse decadent. Did I mention he’s decadent?
And for some reason all the Romans except Nero wear their togas indoors and pinned at the shoulder. Given that the toga was a cloak wrapped around the body when the wearer was outdoors, this is the equivalent of wearing your wool coat inside and stapling it shut so it won’t accidentally fall off. Oh, and the Romans wear pants under their togas, even though pants are basically a Germanic fashion introduced centuries later.
Also, apparently the main reason Boudica’s rebellion was so effective is because she had a crack squad of Commando Urchins. These pre-teen kids are holy terrors who are well-versed in guerrilla tactics. They rob the Roman proconsul (actually shouting “nyah nyah” as they do so) and beat up his body guards. They tunnel under a Roman statue and cause it to collapse (and then climb out of the hole it just fell into), and they tunnel behind a group of Romans in a shield wall and ham-string them. Then they crawl through the ranks of another shield wall (because the soldiers are too stupid to notice them) and decapitate the proconsul. It seems clear that the reason Boudica lost her battle with Suetonius is that she forget to send in the Commando Urchins.
The movie also forgets that it’s supposed to be historical. Magior the Shaman (Gary Lewis) periodically works actual magic. He is constantly prophesying accurately. He shows one of Boudica’s warriors a vision. He throws things into the water and then makes them burst into flames. He levitates a sword out of a pond, and at the end of the film, he apparently turns Isolda invisible or teleports her away so the Romans won’t kill her after Boudica’s defeat. It’s nice to add magical touches because everyone knows that the Celts are all mystical and cool and whatnot, but let’s try to remember that the story is supposed to have actually happened.
And, for reasons that are never explained, Isolda can read Latin, even though all the other Iceni are illiterate. Maybe her Roman soldier boyfriend taught her in the few spare minutes they had together before things all went wrong.
It’s Not All Bad, Is It?
The film does have a few good qualities. Both Kingston and Blunt do their best with crappy material, and in a few scenes they really succeed. The scene after Boudica is flogged and her daughters raped is particularly effective. Boudica forces herself to stand up, repeatedly saying “Get up!” and as she unties her daughters, she tells them the same thing. Their struggle to be strong in the face of their trauma is quite moving.
The film also fully acknowledges the emotional impact of the rape. Isolda struggles to make sense of what has happened to her and contemplates suicide. She chooses to fight alongside her mother, hoping to die. But after the battle, when she wakes up injured but alive, she tells herself “Get up!” After Magior spirits her away somehow, the film ends with a shot of Emily Blunt as a modern Londoner, with the clear suggestion that Isolda was a strong survivor whose blood and spirit now run in English veins. As I’ve remarked in a previous post, I’m not a big fan of the ‘strong woman raped’ trope, but this film makes it work better than a lot of others I’ve seen, mostly because it explores the aftermath of the trauma without resorting to the ‘man-hating she-devil’ cliché.
The final battle is more realistic than the first one. The film takes some effort to show Roman tactics in a way that makes clear why the Romans ultimately defeated the Celts (although the film shows the two sides as roughly equal).
All in all, this isn’t a very good film, either as history or as story. It gets the basic facts right, which is certainly commendable, but it gets so much of the supporting details wrong that it loses the forest for the trees. The Romans are decadent to the point of cartoonishness. I would love to see what Alex Kingston and Emily Blunt could do with this story if they were given a solid script to work with. Just like Boudica’s rebellion, I have to regard this film as a lost opportunity.
Note: Her name is spelled a couple different ways. ‘Boudica’ and ‘Boudicca’ are both common; Tacitus uses two Cs, but other sources have only one, so both are basically correct. In the 19th century, a fashion arose to spell her name ‘Boudicea’, but that appears to be based on a copyist’s error during the Middle Ages.
Want to Know More?
Boudica is available under its US title, Warrior Queen.
Our sources for Boudica’s revolt are chiefly Tacitus’s Annals (Penguin Classics) and his Agricola, available in Agricola and Germania (Penguin Classics). Of these, the Agricola is probably the better choice for understanding Roman Britain, since Agricola, Tacitus’ father-in-law, was governor of the province.
Graham Webster’s Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome AD 60 (Roman Conquest of Britain) focuses on Boudica’s campaign, filling out the somewhat scanty historical sources with evidence from archaeology, while Richard Hingley and Christina Unwin’s Boudica: Iron Age Warrior Queenis more concerned with her posthumous reputation.