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The story of Elizabeth I's reign is one that has been told so often, you'd think it would be extremely difficult to bring any kind of freshness to it, but damn it all if the producers of this beautifully mounted version from Channel 4 haven't managed to find a way! I'm not familiar with the work of screenwriter Nigel Williams or director Tom Hooper, but I will most definitely be watching for their names in the future. Both have done quality work here; the kind you'd expect from a Merchant/Ivory film or a lavish Hollywood production.
But I daresay that Hollywood should turn green with envy at the production values shown here; everything from the sets to the most minute details of the costuming is top-notch. But where ELIZABETH I really excels is in its casting.
Helen Mirren, in my not so humble opinion, has been sorely deprived of the full measure of accolades she has been due for decades. When someone like Meryl Streep can't sing your praises enough, you have got to be beyond good and Helen most definitely is. Granted, actresses of such renown as Bette Davis, Glenda Jackson and Dame Judi Dench have all brought their unique interpretations to this role, and until now the best of the crop was Cate Blanchett, who showed us a younger and more winsome version of the woman who became known as the Virgin Queen.
But here, Williams' script brings out both the softness and the steel of the woman behind the throne, and Mirren throws herself into the role as if it were her last. Every color of mood is on display here, and I will be completely baffled if she doesn't win so many awards for this role that she'll need help to carry them all.
And matching wit for wit and word for word is another underestimated actor, Jeremy Irons as the Earl of Leichester. Irons has excelled always at anything he plays, be it vile villains or charming rakes, and in the Earl he has found a way to play the best of both worlds - a robust rapscallion not beneath dalliances with other women of the court, but whose heart truly does belong to the one woman who would always be his better, other half...but never his lover or his wife. The intricate dance of endearment and desire between him and Mirren is so wonderful and intense, it's hard to believe that this is their first time working together, and hopefully not the last.
And not enough can be said about the supporting cast, which includes Patrick Malahide as Sir Frances Walsingham (played by Geoffrey Rush in the Cate Blanchett version), Toby Jones as Robert Cecil, the plain-looking but cunningly resourceful son of Lord Burghley and his logical successor, and Ian McDiarmid as William Cecil, a.k.a. Lord Burghley, showing us that there is truly life after the Emperor Palpatine. These trusted advisers were both unerringly defending and covertly condescending of their queen, making damn sure that they did their jobs to the best of their ability, but always subtly reminding her with the arch of an eyebrow or the inflection of a phrase that no matter how regal, "Bess" is still a woman living in a man's world.
And for eye candy, the beautiful Hugh Dancy as the impetuous and headstrong Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex. One look at him and it's not difficult to understand why Elizabeth would become involved in an affair with a man half her age. And I say bravo for her good taste! It's to Dancy's credit that the Earl becomes much more than just another pretty face, but a man struggling to establish himself as such while in the grip of Bess's grasp of iron and velvet...a bond he both desires and rebels against, letting his exuberance, ambition, vanity and hot-headed pride ultimately become his undoing. He proves the point that everyone realizes even more so these days as the cult of celebrity holds sway over all: the beautiful people are always the most favored, but with the spoils comes a heavy price.
A word of caution, though: be advised that when it comes to depictions of violence that took place in this period, most other productions 'tastefully' avoided showing too much graphic detail. This version has no such pretensions. The realism of the depictions of the characters extends to the situations which very often warranted the bloody torture and deaths of others, and you will see it all depicted here in full strength, including the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots, which may leave you open-mouthed with its stunning savagery. (The drawing and quartering of Elizabeth's would-be assassins will stick with you as well).
If you are a fan of historical dramas or just really great acting, this is a definite must-see. With programs like CARNIVALE, ROME and DEADWOOD, HBO has long prided itself on presenting outstanding period pieces. It's good to know that the tradition continues, especially when network television continues to deliver such cheesefests as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS remake and call them "good."
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