Elizabeth I on Film

Happy New Year all! This month is history on film month, because I have decreed it, and what better way to start than looking at the most filmed British monarch; Elizabeth I. Here is a selection of the more modern filmic depictions of Gloriana (and one early one) and whether they are worth a watch.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Errol Flynn plays heroic, dashing characters...like the Earl of Essex...that heroic, dashing...rebellious...traitor
Errol Flynn plays heroic, dashing characters…like the Earl of Essex…that heroic, dashing…rebellious…traitor

Who plays Elizabeth?: Bette Davies
What’s it about?: As the title suggests the film is about Elizabeth’s ‘affair’ with the Earl of Essex; Robert Devereux (Errol Flynn).
Historical Events: Essex’s campaigns at Cadiz and Ireland, his rebellion and execution.
Accuracy: It isn’t very accurate. The film starts historically with Elizabeth rewarding Essex’s colleagues over him after his activities at Cadiz and their subsequent fallout. However, the film has Errol Flynn cast as Essex and Flynn always plays the good guy. As a result Essex is the sympathetic hero, betrayed at every turn (largely by a fictional lady in waiting) and bearing his punishments with grace. Even his execution is conducted on his terms; he gallantly accepts it as the only possible way to protect the queen *swoon*.
Should you watch it?: Very yes. If only to see what happens when you cast one of the most dashing and heroic actors of the time in the role of a traitor and a rebel.

Elizabeth (1998)

A  classic example of rewriting history to make it more dramatic...when the truth was far more interesting
A classic example of rewriting history to make it more dramatic…when the truth was far more interesting

Who plays Elizabeth?: Cate Blanchett
What’s it about?: Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne and her early years as Queen.
Historical Events: Mary I death, Elizabeth’s suitors (Philip of Spain, Henri Duc D’Anjou, Robert Dudley), the Babington Plot.
Accuracy: There is no accuracy. Seeing as I have neither the time nor the space to list all of the inaccuracies, here’s a brief list of the major issues.

  • Everyone around Elizabeth is aged or made younger, while events are condensed, amalgamated or outright fictionalised to speed up the plot.
  • Robert Dudley did not have a publicly acknowledged sexual relationship with Elizabeth, nor did he convert to Catholicism, nor did he plot with Spain against her and his marriage to Amy Robsart was not a secret at court.
  • Lettice Knollys was not accidentally poisoned in a French plot against Elizabeth. She in fact outlived the Queen.
  • Walsingham did not have sex with and murder Mary of Guise.
  • Henri, the Duc D’Anjou did not personally court Elizabeth. He was not Mary of Guise’s beloved nephew and he was not present at her death, neither was he bisexual transvestite.
  • Elizabeth did not enact a ‘Night of the Long Knives’ style intrigue to kill off half her court.

Should you watch it?: No! The liberties with history aside, it is not even a very good film. Despite an excellent cast the plot is rather disjointed with no feel for the period of the characters.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Youngest looking fifty five year old Elizabeth ever.
Youngest looking fifty five year old Elizabeth ever.

Who plays Elizabeth?: Cate Blanchett
What’s it about?: A sequel to Elizabeth focusing this time on her later reign.
Historical Events: Her relationship with Walter Raleigh, the Babington Plot (again), Mary Queen of Scots, the Spanish Armada.
Accuracy: Unsurprisingly, the sequel is just as inaccurate as its predecessor. But while a great deal of the inaccuracies come from the overly dramatised style of the plot (Anthony Babington didn’t actually get close enough to Elizabeth to fire a gun point blank at her head), the film has to compensate for the liberties taken in the first film. For example, William Cecil and Robert Dudley do not appear despite their positions because Elizabeth sees them disgraced.
Should you watch it?: No. It’s all about Elizabeth ‘overcoming’ personal struggles, but the real Elizabeth overcame much more with a lot less drama.

The Virgin Queen (2005)

Television series' seem to be more accurate, probably as they have more scope to be so
Television series’ seem to be more accurate, probably as they have more scope to be so.

Who plays Elizabeth?: Anne-Marie Duff
What’s it about?: A four part mini series charting Elizabeth’s ascension and entire reign with particular emphasis on her private life and personal relationships.
Historical Events: Her imprisonment and house arrest, her relationships with Dudley and Essex, numerous courtships and plots, Mary Queen of Scots, the Spanish Armada, her decline and death.
Accuracy: Largely accurate. The few inaccuracies have no impact on the plot and are fleeting (e.g. Cardinal Pole is seen leaving the palace some days after Mary I’s death when historically he was already dead).
While the series deals with Elizabeth’s personal relationships which we cannot know the details of, it follows historical events as they happened.
Should you watch it?: Yes. If nothing else for a young Tom Hardy, exceptional soundtrack and a mind blowingly good closing scene.

Elizabeth I (2005)

David Starkey considers this the most accurate and best portrayal of Elizabeth, good enough for me
David Starkey considers this the most accurate and best portrayal of Elizabeth, good enough for me

Who plays Elizabeth?: Helen Mirren
What’s it about?: The last twenty five years of Elizabeth’s reign with emphasis on her relationship with Dudley (part one) and Essex (part two).
Historical events: Relationship with Dudley and Essex, Mary Queen of Scots, the Spanish Armada, Essex’s rebellion and execution, Elizabeth’s decline and death.
Accuracy: Once again, while we cannot be sure of the events that occur behind closed doors, the private exchanges between Elizabeth and her courtiers are believable. There is a meeting between Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots which probably didn’t happen but apart from this the historical events are accurate.
Should you watch it?: A thousand times yes. This is one of the more believable portrayals of Elizabeth I demonstrating her vanity and jealousy as well as her competence.

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