Elizabeth I: Finally a True Rendition

By Catherine Revill

In 2005 a two part miniseries on Elizabeth I aired in Britain. The miniseries was so wildly popular in the United Kingdom that it was eventually aired on Home Box Office Entertainment in America, TMN in Canada, ATV in Hong Kong, ABC in Australia, and TVNZ in New Zealand. The miniseries starred Helen Mirren as Elizabeth, Jeremy Irons as the Earl of Leicester, Hugh Dancy as the Earl of Essex, Toby Jones as Sir Robert Cecil, Patrick Malahide as Sir Francis Walsingham, Ian McDiarmid as Lord Burghley, Jeremie Covillaut as the Duke of Anjou, Barbara Flynn as Mary Queen of Scots, Ewen Bremmer as James VI King of Scots, David Delve as Sir Francis Drake, Will Keen as Francis Bacon, and Ben Pullen as Sir Walter Raleigh. The miniseries also won a slew of Emmys including Outstanding Miniseries, Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries (Helen Mirren), Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries (Jeremy Irons), Outstanding Art Direction, Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries, Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Miniseries, Outstanding Costumes for a Miniseries, and Outstanding Hairstyling for a Miniseries. In addition to all of these Elizabeth I also won a few Golden Globe awards including Best Television Mini-Series, Best Actress in a Mini-Series (Helen Mirren), and Best Supporting Actor in a Mini-Series (Jeremy Irons).

The miniseries takes place during the last twenty five years of Elizabeth’s reign, shedding light on her personal as well as political life and how they impacted each other. The miniseries was filmed in Vilnius, Lithuania, and the sets were constructed inside the massive sports arena there. There was a scene filmed in an actual historical location, St. Anne’s Church, which was built in fifteen hundred. The movie has garnered much acclaim for its historical accuracy. Dr. David Starkey, historian and author of Elizabeth: the Struggle for the Throne states “I think, without any doubt, that this is the best film overall, that’s been made on Elizabeth. I think it gets nearer to Elizabeth’s humanity, it gets nearer to her relationship with her courtiers, it gives a sense of the visual world, it gives a sense of something of the taste, the texture, the touch, and above all, the words.”

The DVD has a short feature called “Uncovering the Real Elizabeth” in which Dr. Starkey speaks about the legitimacy of the film and gives a talk about Elizabeth and her reign. Most filmmakers will take liberty when making a historical film, but director Tom Hooper felt that a true account would be more effective. In an interview Tom Hooper states “We find that historical detail is so much more interesting than anything we can invent nowadays. I mean, they lived life on such an extreme level. My only sadness was that we couldn’t get more historical detail into it, because you could really start investigating the extraordinary nature of their lives. For us the historical detail was very important.” Elizabeth I is one of the most accurate movies ever made based on the life and politics of Elizabeth I. Even the queen’s love of pearls is used. Many put a lot of emphasis on the regal court life, jewels, and clothes without really talking about the political issues of the time. Some may not even show the pretty clothes and jewels well, as can be seen in The Other Boleyn Girl which was an historical travesty. However, in Elizabeth I the political aspects are emphasized just as much as the romantic encounters are. As lead Helen Mirren says, “I felt she had a very interesting and complicated private life, but it played out against such an extraordinary political life and international life on a very grand stage. So I thought we needed to include that side of her life. The fact is she was maneuvering her private life around her public life, and her public life was the most important part of her life, and she consistently sacrificed her private life to her public life. And Nigel just did the most brilliant job of combining the public and the private so beautifully in the script.”

This miniseries does an extraordinary job of portraying Elizabeth with all her strengths and faults. It shows her political genius when dealing with foreign affairs as well as those in her own country. The way this is mixed with the issues of her personal life is truly amazing. The miniseries begins with Elizabeth being examined by a doctor to see if she can still bear children and moves into the political arena with some of the Cabinet members discussing marriage alliances to various countries such as France. After this the movie goes straight into a private scene of Dudley, Earl of Leicester and the Queen, before switching back to a scene of a council meeting discussing the Duke of Anjou as a marriage candidate. The back and forth motion of political and personal does a great job of portraying the conflict of interests in Elizabeth’s life. After an attempt was made on the Queen’s life, Walsingham suggests that Mary, Queen of Scots was involved with Spain in the attempt. When the Duke of Anjou arrives in London as a possible husband, the director shows Elizabeth’s fluency in French when she speaks with him. Also shown is her diplomatic skill when asked about Catholicism and Protestantism. The Duke of Anjou is staunchly Catholic while Elizabeth is unswervingly Protestant. Elizabeth very neatly sidesteps the issue of England’s official religion during their meeting. There is much intrigue surrounding the Duke of Anjou’s visit to England, with the Earl of Leicester protesting the match all the way, as well as those citizens who were afraid of a Catholic consort. Elizabeth agrees to marry the Duke of Anjou and causes much strife with her people. Upon hearing of Leicester’s secret marriage to the Lady Essex who carried his child, Elizabeth displayed some of the famous temper inherited from her father. Upon the termination of Elizabeth and Anjou’s agreement she wrote the following:

“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. I am and not, I freeze and yet am burned, since from myself another self I turned. My care, like my shadow in the sun, follows me flying, flies when I pursue it, stands and lies by me, doth what I have done. His too familiar care doth make me rue it. No means I find to rid him from my breast, till by the end of things it be supprest. Some gentler passion slide into my mind, for I am soft and made of melting snow: or be more cruel, love, and so be kind. Let me or float or sink, be high or low. Or let me live with some more sweet content, or die and so forget what love ere meant.” The execution order of Mary Queen of Scots weighed heavily on Elizabeth and it took her some time to give in to signing the order. Many movies don’t have time to adequately portray this; however, since Elizabeth I is a miniseries it has more time to show Elizabeth’s anguish in executing Mary who is not only an anointed monarch but also her cousin, the daughter of her father’s sister Margaret. The first half of the miniseries ends with the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the death of the Earl of Leicester.

The second half begins with the thirtieth anniversary of the Queen’s succession and a jousting tournament. The Queen is growing increasingly jealous of the ladies of her court and increasingly aware of her aging face. Shockingly, Elizabeth bestows on the young Earl of Essex the late Earl of Leicester’s apartments near her own. Essex is much like Robert Burton’s Marc Antony in the 1960’s Cleopatra. He loves to drink, is good looking and heavily in debt, living off his infatuated monarch. It seems that the Earl of Essex has political ambitions which continuously clash with his devotion and loyalty to the Queen. He claims to love her, but she has grown wiser in the ways of love and asks him if it is true just because he says it. On this issue the miniseries takes the view without stating it that Elizabeth and Essex were lovers. Elizabeth grows more and more irritated with the behavior of Essex and begins to grow closer to Robert Cecil the Secretary of State after Sir Francis Walsingham dies. Just as Elizabeth is told of Leicester’s impregnated mistress she also becomes aware of a woman impregnated by Essex. Elizabeth meets with James VI of Scotland to discuss the possibility of his succession and finds him seriously lacking. Eventually, the Earl of Essex committed treason and Elizabeth had him executed. It is said that for the rest of her life upon hearing his name she would become upset.

As previously mentioned, this British miniseries devoted to the last twenty five years of Elizabeth’s life is one of the most accurate in existence. The only rival is Elizabeth R, a nine disk BBC production of Elizabeth’s life starring Glenda Jackson who also played Elizabeth in Mary Queen of Scots. The strong point in Elizabeth is that it shows her as a real person. It portrays her strength as a monarch as well as her faults as a person. She is usually shown as an indestructible Queen whom nothing will destroy, but in this rendition she is someone you might connect with as another human being. The only point of contention which may anger some is the weakness she shows in her dealings with Leicester and Essex; however, this is the only aspect of the miniseries which might perplex some. The miniseries ends with the death of Elizabeth I who upon her deathbed said, “Fetch me a priest, girl. I have a mind to die.” Ever pragmatic, intelligent, strong, sometimes silly, vain, and compelling, Elizabeth is one of the most famous and loved women of all time.