More than 400 years ago, an intelligent, independent-minded woman (Queen Elizabeth I of England) faced issues that we ladies still face: gaining respect in a male-dominated field (i.e. government), finding the right man to marry (who would also be acceptable to her people), and not-so-friendly relatives (Mary, Queen of Scots). The British monarch (nearing middle-age in Part I this mini-series) is played by the truly regal Helen Mirren, who can be smart, tough, and vulnerable. Her closest friend/long-time love is Robert Dudley, the dashing Earl of Leicester (Jeremy Irons). In the Cate Blanchett film, Joseph Fiennes played the (young) Leicester. Irons is probably one of the few actors capable of going head-to-head with Mirren. They also look terrific as a romantic pair, and seem like intellectual equals.
Her closest advisors, Lord Francis Walsingham and Lord Burghley, are pressing her to (finally) marry. They think they have the man- the Duke of Anjou, heir to the throne of France; their union would unite Protestant England with Catholic France. Thus, they could fight off Spain, a very formidable Catholic nation at that time. (Religion was a part of government in Western Europe in those days.) Elizabeth is not opposed to marrying and bearing children (she knows her duty), but who will be the man for her? Leicester is jealous; he says: “No one could be close as we too, Bess.” She explains that she must marry royalty, so he’s not a valid choice.
Leicester is her friend, confidant, and… more (though she is still a virgin). A doctor assures her advisors this is true, and that she can bear children. The queen’s body belongs to the people, not only to her. As the Queen readies to meet her (arranged) match, all the men around her look nervous. Will the Duke convert, or be a “quiet Catholic?” Will his temperament suit Elizabeth? Meanwhile, she wonders if the Duke is handsome. Some things never change!
There is a fun scene on a boat where the Duke reveals himself; he came in disguise. There is an instant spark of attraction between the pair! Elizabeth is happily surprised, and ready to make the best of it. After a few weeks of wooing, her “contentment” is marred by Leicester’s arrival. Is he a jealous man only thinking of himself? Or is he worried about his country’s future?
It soon becomes apparent that her people are against the marriage as well. Doesn’t she deserve love, just like anyone else? Out of the blue, the French minister blurts out something about Leicester and Lady Essex, a recently widowed woman of the court. Watch Mirren’s reaction- it’s terrific! She only exposes Elizabeth’s true emotion in a quick burst then is the composed Queen once more.
Then scene, where she sits looking over the marriage contract surrounded by her council, is even stronger. The men fearfully eye the pen in her hand. Mirren reveals the Queen’s (natural) longings as a woman before breaking down in tears. But it is merely a brief outburst; she will sacrifice for her country. After bravely dealing with personal disappointments, Elizabeth hears of a papal decree which causes her to fear for her life!
If you’d like to know more, check out Elizabeth I. In Part II of the series, the male lead is played by the gorgeous Hugh Dancy (as impulsive, ambitious Earl of Essex). Despite the (big) age difference, Mirren and Dancy create great chemistry together. I know it’s available at the Virgin Megastore (where I bought it this past winter) and at Blockbuster. The total time is 211 minutes with two special features, one re: the filming and another about the life of the real Elizabeth.
Below are portraits of the real Dudley, Anjou, and Essex (in case you were curious)!