Judge Gordon Sullivan wants to hear about the queens who always ran late.
"Seven queens who challenged male power."
Queen Elizabeth I is an iconic figure. Her various portraits adorn everything from the lowliest tea cozy to the largest billboards. Though I doubt anyone's done the research, I have a feeling she'd stack up there with Mickey Mouse and Coca-Cola in terms of recognition, at least in Anglophone countries. So large are her personality, myth, and image that it's hard to remember that she wasn't England's first queen. Technically that honor belonged to her sister Mary, and a long line of women with political savvy helped smooth the way for the Virgin Queen. She-Wolves: England's Early Queens takes a look at four of the major pre-Tudor women who attempted to seize the power of politics in England. The result is a fine historical documentary that will be of interest to anyone with a passion for English history.
Based on the book by historian Helen Castor, She-Wolves: England's Early Queens looks at seven women who ruled (or attempted to rule) England into the Tudor period. The first is Matilda, granddaughter of William the Conquerer and only heir to Henry I. Next is her daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who supported her son's revolt against Henry II. A hundred years pass before Isabella of France comes on the scene, married to Edward II, a despot under the influence of his lover(s). Later, Margaret of Anjou stepped in when her husband, Henry VI, went mad and was involved in starting the War of the Roses. This brings us to the Tudor era, and the brief reigns of Jane Grey and Mary I before Elizabeth I takes the throne to rule for decades. The series is broken into three hour-long episodes. Matilda and Eleanor in the first, Isabella and Margaret in the second, and Jane, Mary, and Elizabeth in the third.
She-Wolves does a fantastic job demonstrating the fraught relationship between gender and power in the history of English rule. When William the Conqueror came to England in 1066, male power was the assumption of pretty much everyone. Kings ruled by their military might and divine dispensation. When Henry I had no male heirs, the question of his succession through everyone into a tizzy. Of course, England had already had queens, but what She-Wolves makes clear is that queen has taken on a very different meaning since Elizabeth. In the time of Matilda, queen meant wife to the king, so we have to have phrases like "female king" or "queen in her own right" to describe the uproar that women like Matilda caused.
It helps, of course, that She-Wolves picks out extraordinary women to profile. I'm sure England has had its share of boring queens, but the four pre-Tudor women of the first two episodes were extraordinary figures by any standards—all of them apparently beautiful, intelligent, and with a keen sense of politics. More importantly, though, She-Wolves treats them fairly. Though the series obviously points out there historically significant strengths, these aren't mere puff pieces. We learn just as much about what these women did wrong as what they did right, and this balanced portrait gives the series an edge.
Stylistically, this show is essentially Helen Castor narrating the history of these women. She has a fine voice and reads the material well. Visually, the show alternates between shots of various historical locations (with and without Castor walking through them). Interspersed with that are the occasional shots of artwork from the period, often showing the only surviving portraits of the figures under discussion. There is very sparing use of reenactment, kept to less than a minute of material through the three hours, and used only as a means of scene transition.
As a DVD set, She-Wolves also impresses. The three episodes are housed on a single disc. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfers look fine. Obviously shot on video, these shows have a clean, bright look that suits the material. There are often dramatic shots of beautiful locations that make good use of strong lighting, but there's nary a hiccup in terms of compression or color balance. It's not a visual feast by any stretch, but the show looks good. The stereo audio does a fine job of keeping Castor easy to hear. The set's extras are education focused and include a sixteen-page booklet that expands a bit on the show's figures while offering other strong female characters from history. There is also bio of Castor on the disc itself, and the promise of more resources on the web.
She-Wolves: England's Early Queens is a fine historical documentary that looks at the relationship between gender and power as it played out in the lives of extraordinary women of the English monarchy. It's worth watching for those interested in English history, female rulers, or extraordinary characters.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
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