Tuesday, May 09, 2006

HBO's Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I is a four-hour long HBO special, released in 2005, and it is amazing.

The benchmark for all things Elizabeth Regina, of course, is Glenda Jackson’s six-part miniseries, Elizabeth R, an incredible achievement that covers the entire reign of the Virgin Queen. You’ll pardon me, then, if I refer to this 1972 epic often.

Elizabeth I stars Helen Mirren, a not-so-obvious choice for Elizabeth, but one that won me over almost immediately. She’s commanding, she’s confident, and she changes and grows as time goes on throughout the four hours. She has to be able to face difficult decisions while we watch her form her opinion, and yet giggle like a schoolgirl in the face of her young suitor's advances, and believe she's still the queen. She manages all of this, and more.

There are two parts to the series, a series that starts when she's in her thirties and proceeds to her death. The first is mostly her affair with the Earl of Leicester, while the second deals with her affair with the Earl of Essex, Leicester’s stepnephew. You can see the obvious difference here: we will be taken behind the scenes, where we’ve never been taken before. Even Bette Davis’ version didn’t show us these scenes. While Elizabeth R tended toward the historical accuracy, and thus did not venture to guess the private conversations in her obviously close relationships, miniseries Elizabeth I has no such boundaries. And with modern taste as it is, it isn’t shocking these days to see Essex hurl himself upon the queen. Never fear, our Bess stays a virgin queen, and, even better, we sense why. And, although deceit has no excuse, we almost see why men like Leicester and Essex found other women more available.

The younger Elizabeth in Part One is one who needs a confidante, less confident but growing moreso each year of her reign, and the Earl of Leicester is her choice. Jeremy Irons is a bit older than one pictures Leicester in these years, but a fine choice nonetheless. He has the wimsy, the command of the language, that one would expect. My only criticism of the Jackson Elizabeth miniseries is that her Leicester was too much the clown. One suspects that Leicester, who was practiced in the art of court intrigue, was no jester. And so Irons is exactly the right mix of intellectual, emotional and physical.

I began to see this miniseries as the loves of Elizabeth, and nothing more, since it leaves out most of the political drama of her reign – except for a nicely drawn passage concerning Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as Elizabeth’s grappeling with the court's demand for her marriage – when the second part of the drama proved more satisfying in this area. We’re witness to a middle-aged fling with young, handsome Earl of Essex, but at the same time, we watch the beginning and rise of Robert Cecil, the man who will prove to be her best and trusted counsel in later years. It’s an intriguing counterpoint – Essex, who pulls at the heart, and Cecil, who commands her intellect. And the real treat is not just the writing, the depiction of the growth and maturity of these two real characters, one on the rise and one on the demise, but the acting of Hugh Dancy and Toby Jones, respectively, bring them alive to us. The series hits its greatest height with this acting triumvirate in the last portion of the series. They are astounding to watch, and we are saddened to watch it end.

Elizabeth I is less history than a tale of a bored and cautious queen’s emotions in her close relationships, and in these able hands it’s a joy to watch. Thumb’s up.


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