Great costumes and Helen Mirren cause Judge Brett Cullum to favorably tip the scales.
"I lack the assurance of youth. I question everything."—Queen Elizabeth I
HBO's miniseries Elizabeth I is a classy affair: a well-acted historical costume drama centering on "The Virgin Queen" in her later years. It received no less than nine Emmy statues at the 2006 awards, including a much deserved nod for lead actress Helen Mirren (Excalibur) and a slew of production honors. Truth is you should check it out primarily for the chance to see Mirren at the top of her game, and gawk at the exquisite costumes and sets which BBC 4 and HBO produced jointly. It sticks to fact for most of the running time, though there are certainly enough fictionalized events to make it an uneasy marriage of hokum and history. But in the grand tradition of dramatic English productions, Elizabeth I is compelling viewing. The story presented here differs from previous movie incarnations (such as Elizabeth) by focusing on the Queen's later life. It revolves around two romantic friends, Robert Dudley and Robert Devereux, who figure prominently in history books as platonic consorts.
The cast is immaculate for a production on a subject of this magnitude, easily elevating it out of miniseries and in to cinematic quality. Mirren finds the right mix of steely resolve married with good humor and vulnerability to make Elizabeth a woman who easily rules England. We care about her, and her romances and political games are engaging. Jeremy Irons (Dead Ringers) doesn't get enough to do as Robert Dudley, and he's only seen in the first half. Still, he has enough charisma and charm to pull off a stately performance. Hugh Dancy (Ella Enchanted) moves in to the romantic lead in the last half of the series as Robert Devereux. His impish charm is touching and a nice contrast to Irons. Support is ably provided by Ian McDiarmid (of Star Wars prequel fame), Barbara Flynn (You're Dead), and a parade of English actors who would be at home on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The production looks sumptuous with period costumes glistening in dark palaces lit often by candles and cloudy days. The entire production was filmed in Lithuania, which surprisingly looks a lot like the England of history. The script is well-written even if it tries to cover too many events in a short time. Yes, three hours is a mighty short running time to deliver these chapters of Elizabeth's reign. Dramatic license is taken at several turns, but most notably with Elizabeth meeting Mary Queen of Scots—which never occurred. Yet this is a forgivable concession to lend her execution more impact.
The DVD is housed in a book-like box, giving it a literary air from first sight. The transfer is clear enough though it seems a touch soft at certain moments. Sound is only given a stereo treatment, but dialogue comes across without a hitch. The extras show some nice production insights, but the historical feature seems light and airy when it should be more insightful. Historian David Starkey provides little historical fact other than saying "That's what happened!" again and again.
Elizabeth I is a handsome tale showcasing an ensemble that does the story justice. The movie is surprisingly engaging, fast paced, and even offers a fair amount of disturbing gore in torture sequences. Helen Mirren has never been better; she is a treasure in this demanding role which should prove to be a hallmark of her stellar career. Elizabeth I is a great way to kill a couple of evenings if you're a fan of corsets and Queens.
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• Making of featurette
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