Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Michael Hirst, William Nicholson, and Shekhar Kapur, 1998, 2007

Elizabeth I
Nigel Williams and Tom Hooper, 2005

The Virgin Queen
Paula Milne and Coky Giedroyc, 2005

I clicked over to IMDb a while back and looked up Michael Hirst, the guy behind The Tudors, and discovered that he had also written those two movies with Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I. Since I liked The Tudors quite a bit, I figured I'd check them out. Then I discovered that HBO had done a two-parter with Helen Mirren as Elizabeth I, immediately before she played Elizabeth II in The Queen; that seemed interesting, so I checked that out too. Then I discovered that the BBC had done its own miniseries — four one-hour segments instead of two two-hour ones — so I figured that for the sake of completism I'd look at that one as well. THEN I read a bunch of people saying that the BBC's previous Elizabeth miniseries from 1971 was actually far superior, but I decided that completism only goes so far, even for me.

So, how to compare these efforts? Here's one way:

Spanish Armada sequence
Hirst/Kapur long naval battle with many explosions
Williams/Hooper Elizabeth learns of victory by watching a ship sail into the harbor flying her flag
Milne/Giedroyc Elizabeth learns of victory when a guy comes into her office and says, "Hey, we won"

Here's another:

Robert Dudley's death
Milne/Giedroyc William Cecil tells Elizabeth that Dudley was found dead at his lodge in Oxford (accurate)
Williams/Hooper Elizabeth is at Dudley's bedside as he breathes his last (less accurate)
Hirst/Kapur "Hey, wouldn't it be cooler if instead of Dudley we swapped in Sir Walter Raleigh?" (whut)

From what I know of the actual history, the Milne/Giedroyc is the most faithful in its details. It's also the most shapeless as a narrative. I didn't get much of a sense of how the filmmakers viewed Elizabeth or the overall arc of her reign. The dialogue featured some clinkers and a battle scene was filmed by zooming in until everything was blurry and then shaking the camera around. That's pretty much all I have to say about that one.

The first Hirst/Kapur film does have a thesis, and a very interesting one: it posits that Elizabeth came to the conclusion that Protestantism would never take hold in England unless it could offer the people a figure capable of inspiring as much devotion as the Virgin Mary inspired among Catholics, and took that role upon herself. This meant she could never marry, so the young Elizabeth definitively split with her lover Robert Dudley and dismissed doddering advisor William Cecil, who'd been pressing her to wed a foreign prince, such as the duc d'Anjou, a foppish transvestite whom Elizabeth held beneath contempt. The problem is that none of this actually happened. Elizabeth did have a brief falling-out with Dudley, fifteen years after Elizabeth ends, when he gave up hope of marrying Elizabeth and secretly wed her cousin. But soon enough he was restored as her favorite, and was appointed head of the English military leading up to the battle against the Spanish Armada. Cecil remained Elizabeth's chief advisor for another 35 years after Hirst and Kapur boot him into retirement. And not only did the duc d'Anjou whom unfounded rumors said to be homosexual never meet Elizabeth, but his successor, who did court Elizabeth in person, quickly became a genuine darling of hers. This is more than dramatic license; this is completely changing history, often close to 180 degrees. It's alternate-universe fiction along the lines of Saturday Night Live's famous "mastermind Reagan" sketch.

The Williams/Hooper production presents a very different Elizabeth, one who my subsequent reading suggests is substantially truer to history, but who also shocked me a little, since I hadn't realized how much of an invention the Hirst/Kapur version was. Williams and Hooper cover the last quarter-century of Elizabeth's reign; there is some overlap with Elizabeth: The Golden Age, but while the team behind that film decided that 1588 minus 1533 equaled a smooth-skinned 38-year-old, the casting of Helen Mirren in Elizabeth I reflected a set of filmmakers with both a better grasp of arithmetic and a different story to tell. Their Elizabeth, as in the other films, is smart and charismatic and given to witty repartee — but in a lot of ways she's an adolescent girl trapped in her grandmother's body. It's pretty eyebrow-raising to see the extent to which the policies of the English government are a function of which boys the queen likes. I say "boys" because, with the exception of Dudley, they were pretty much all a generation or more younger than she was. The second half of the miniseries deals with her tempestuous relationship with Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, and Elizabeth was ten years older than Devereux's mother. So, yeah, if you want to see strapping young lads sucking face with a sexagenarian, this is the show for you. But to continue: I say "likes" because, unlike in the Hirst/Kapur movies where Elizabeth is jaded about courtship and coolly works the royal marriage market for her advantage, Williams and Hooper portray her as genuinely smitten — yes, by Dudley, but also by the younger duc d'Anjou and by Devereux. And they seem to be into her, though it's left ambiguous whether their feelings are authentic or whether this is just a gender-switched version of the standard story about the old fool whose trophy girlfriend pretends to be into him in exchange for gifts and status. But of course things never do work out between the queen and her favorites, not completely — as noted, Dudley marries someone else, the objections of the people scotch her wedding plans with the duc, etc. — and when they do, this Elizabeth goes into shrieking histrionics. Her behavior is worlds different from Blanchett's portrayal… but that portrayal didn't square with other things I've read: that her teeth were black from eating too much candy, that she climbed on chairs screaming when she saw a mouse, that she threw shoes at her advisors. This one does.

Another writer I've worked with says that the two questions to ask when evaluating a story are "Is it real?" and "Is it interesting?" The Hirst/Kapur fails the first test — not just because the filmmakers change the history, but because they change it to fit tired cinematic formulas. "Two ships lost!" the English fret. "Another four ships lost!" Uh, in reality the English didn't lose any ships in battle against the Spanish Armada. But the formula says that it's more dramatic to have the good guys look like they're losing, so The Golden Age starts blowing up ships in a move that is tantamount to announcing, "Hey, did this film briefly transport you to 16th-century England? Ha ha ha! You're actually sitting at home watching a stupid action movie!" On the flip side, the Milne/Giedroyc fails the second test: it's a pile of events that don't add up to much, like the book about William McKinley I'm currently slogging through. The Williams/Hooper does decently if not spectacularly on both the "real" and "interesting" fronts, so if you're going to watch one miniseries about Elizabeth I this year, that's the one I'd recommend. But you'd better hurry, because it's about four hours long and the year only has about four and a half hours left to go.

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