Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I, the HBO mini-series released in 2005, is the best of all the Queen Elizabeth Tudor movies that I’ve seen to date. When I popped Disc One into the DVD player recently, I was expecting something mildly entertaining. At the end of the three hours plus viewing time, I was completely won over. It’s a masterpiece.

First broadcast for British and American television in 2005-06, the film stars Helen Mirren as Elizabeth, Jeremy Irons as Earl of Leicester and Hugh Dancy as the Earl of Essex.

Mirren earned six prestigious awards for her performance as best actress in a leading role: Golden Globe, Emmy, Screenwriters Guild, Broadcasting Press Association, Monte Carlo TV Festival, and the Satellite award. Irons, too, won more than one award for best supporting actor. While I’m on the subject of actors, I cannot fail to mention the stellar performance of Toby Jones as Sir Robert Cecil. It’s also important to note Patrick Malahide as Walsingham, and a splendid Barbara Flynn as Mary Queen of Scots.

Such superb acting would be any screenwriter’s dream, and the Nigel Williams script manages not only to spell out the complicated loves and lives of the Tudor queen, as many have done before, but also to capture the complexity of the times. This could be a side-effect of pitch perfect word choices and well-placed silences. Surely some of those long pauses come from the director as well as the actors, but when combined with the speeches so carefully turned by Williams, the effect is well—beyond words.

I am thinking of a moment in the movie when Sir Robert Cecil is asked: “What was Essex like as a boy?” Cecil—whose physical stature had caused him to be nicknamed “Pygmy”—answers the question. He answers not by the words he speaks, but by a long silence. We hear the answer in that silence and see in Cecil’s face that Essex must have badgered the boy Cecil almost to the point of insanity. Whether this is fact or fiction, matters not.

What does matter is the “company,” if you will, saw an opportunity to express something timeless and contemporary and ran with it. Toby Jones’s portrayal of Cecil, particularly in this scene, is unsurpassed by any actor in any movie, play or other theatrical endeavor. And yes, you do have to see it to believe it. Williams had the good sense not to overwrite, Jones had the skill (and courage) to deliver every drop of silent feeling, and the director, Tom Hooper, did not overproduce the poignant implication.

Likewise, Mirren is perfect in the role of the now-mature but still fickle and impassioned Elizabeth I. Where other actors seem unable to bring nuance to larger-than-life characters, Mirren is wholly successful. She is so believable because every action, every line she speaks is governed by nuance—a flicker of light in her eyes, the turn of her head, a small gesture. Both the subtle and the overt are voiced in Mirren’s faceted portrayal of England’s most celebrated queen.

Jeremy Irons as Leicester works alongside Mirren, not as a supplement to her character, but as a fully defined character capable of adding another dimension to Elizabeth. We see not one shred of Jeremy Irons’ ego in Leicester. We know by the way the actors work together that the Queen and the Earl have been entwined for a long time. The dialogue gives us clues, but the comfortable chemistry between the two actors makes the relationship real.

They remain devoted to each other until Leicester dies, at which point his stepson picks up the royal pieces. Leicester has taught his stepson (played by Hugh Dancy) to love and attend fully to the Queen at all cost. Therefore, it isn’t terribly surprising when the Queen takes Leicester’s stepson into her confidence, provides him with a lifetime income, and falls in love/lust with him.

Due to her largesse, the Queen’s new boy-toy becomes the Earl of Essex, who because of vanity and a thousand political reasons too complicated to explore here, eventually attempts a coup and fails. The movie ends with his beheading, and Elizabeth staunchly, if sorrowfully, continues to reign.

Critics have given Elizabeth I high marks all around. The mini-series won many “best film” awards aside from those that were awarded for individual performances–The Visual Effects Society, Royal Television Society, Peabody Award, Costume Designers Award, American Cinema Editors, American Film Institute, three BAFTA Awards, and eight Emmys.

I can’t help but ask myself: where was I when this excellent movie was on tv? Why didn’t I hear anything about it? I can only think that it wasn’t promoted well, or that I just wasn’t paying attention. It definitely has my attention now. I highly recommend it and hope that it has the appreciative audience it deserves.

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