Helen Mirren's First Elizabeth

Step aside, Nicholas Hilliard. Your many official portraits of Queen Elizabeth I -- motionless body in gowns encrusted with embroidery, lace, and gems; expressionless face framed by pearl-spangled red wigs and delicate stiff ruffs -- have now been surpassed. Not only that, but the job has been accomplished not in oil paint but in a medium despised by highbrows: television. Elizabeth I (co-produced by BBC Channel Four and HBO) is the finest portrait ever made of this endlessly fascinating figure.

Elizabeth I was no one's puppet. Unlike the impetuous princess played by Cate Blanchett in the 1998 film Elizabeth, the real woman did not renounce spontaneity, life, and love in order to assume the throne. Those imposing gowns and wigs were of her own choosing, because she understood all too well that real power combines outward display and inward discipline. This understanding pervades every detail of this marvelous film.

I won't rave about the gorgeous costumes, for fear of making Elizabeth I sound like Masterpiece Theater. It's pure HBO, with graphic scenes of torture, beheading, and (more shocking to the average couch potato) passionate kissing between a woman in her fifties (Helen Mirren, giving the performance of a lifetime) and a man half her age (Hugh Darcy as the second Earl of Essex). But neither is this a Tudor Sopranos. The violence, romance, and intrigue are all historically accurate. And so is the setting, perhaps the most brilliant and innovative part of a brilliant and innovative production.

Rather than pay the exorbitant fees to film in England, the producers went to Lithuania and, with a reedy lake standing in for the Thames, erected a partial replica of Whitehall, the sprawling palace built by Henry VIII and destroyed by fire in 1698. Never mind that the computer-generated vistas of 1580s London look ... well, computer generated. What matters is the interior, because as director Tom Holland explains, the layout of Elizabeth's living quarters was also the layout of her life: "I turned up through research some great old maps of Whitehall, and ... I began to ask myself why don't we just build exactly what we see here? ... Wouldn't it unlock secrets and truths about Elizabeth if we get it absolutely right?"

One truth unlocked is that Elizabeth managed the outward and inward dimensions of her power by moving through a distinct "hierarchy of space." In long, fluid tracking shots (made possible by the mobile Steadicam) we see her float, stride, and occasionally gallop from the "presence chamber," where she receives dignitaries, to the "privy gallery," a corridor lined with small rooms where she relaxes with her ladies in waiting and consults with her grey-bearded Privy Council. Surpisingly, the "privy chamber" of the all-male council is adjacent to the royal bedchambers, where no male is permitted -- unless, like the Earl of Leicester (beautifully played by Jeremy Irons) and later on, his stepson, the Earl of Essex, he happens to be "Bess's" lover.

If you're wondering how the Virgin Queen (a title generally regarded as accurate) could have had lovers, here are two pieces of advice: 1) use your imagination; and 2) don't obsess on the details. Wisely, this film does not feign knowledge of Elizabeth's hymen. The gynecological exam depicted in the first episode is not to verify her virginity but to determine her fitness, at age 40-something, to marry and produce an heir. Contrary to what some feminist scholars say, Elizabeth's sex was not perceived as an impediment to rule; she was hardly the first female crowned head in Europe. The impediment was her childlessness, in an era when royal succession in Protestant England was plagued by religious war and the ambitions of two powerful Catholic nations, France and Spain.

This is not to say that Elizabeth's sex was irrelevant. Unlike Henry VIII, she could not run through six spouses trying to beget a suitable heir. If she were to become pregnant, the odds were that she would die in childbirth. Also, it is possible that Elizabeth took a dim view of family happiness, having grown up with a father who repeatedly executed his wives and a half-sister ("Bloody Mary") who burned Protestants at the stake and imprisoned Elizabeth in the Tower. The real reason, though, was expressed by the Sir James Melville, the Scottish ambassador: "Madame, I know you will never marry. For if you marry you will be but queen of England; now you are king and queen both."That Elizabeth did not wish to share power does not mean that it was easy for her, so divided was her nature between a cool, calculating head and a hot, passionate heart. As she wrote:

I grieve and dare not show my discontent
I love and yet am forced to seem to hate
I do, yet dare not say I ever meant
I seem stark mute but inwardly do prate.

The Elizabethans were not romantics, Shakespeare in Love notwithstanding. They did not fool themselves that the heart was more trustworthy than the head. Needless to say, Elizabeth was an Elizabethan. She understood that if a ruler cannot govern herself, she will not be able to govern others, and the result will be tyranny.

But movies mean romance, and it is rare to find one, set in any century, that does not succumb to either erotic or political romanticism. Since Elizabeth I is about both the erotic and political sides of Elizabeth's life, it seems almost miraculous that it refrains from romanticism. Much of the credit belongs to Nigel Williams, whose graceful script pulls off the trick of sounding both natural and Shakespearian, while also using many of Elizabeth's words, from the poem quoted above to her speeches before the army and Parliament.

In a recent interview, Ms. Mirren said that when she heard that Mr. Williams was writing the script, she said yes without bothering to read it. Obviously, she knew what she was doing. This writing and acting alone, performed on a bare stage, would make an excellent play. Add those fabulous costumes and that imaginatively truthful setting, and this poor reviewer runs out of superlatives!

Elizabeth I was nominated for several Emmys, and should be available soon on DVD.

(This review appeared first in the New York Sun.)

May 4, 2006 8:54 AM |

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