TV Review: Mirren takes command in HBO's 'Elizabeth I'

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As costume dramas go, HBO's four-hour "Elizabeth I" (8 p.m. Saturday and Monday) is an engrossing, humanizing portrait of the British monarch.

   

'Elizabeth I'

When: 8 p.m. Saturday and Monday, HBO.

   

It's also occasionally graphic, with scenes of the queen receiving a gynecological exam and grisly close-ups of beheadings. But those moments are few and far between and don't detract from the stellar performance of Helen Mirren ("Prime Suspect") in the title role.

Her Elizabeth is utterly human, flirty like a schoolgirl one minute, tearing through palace corridors in a rage the next. Even when the story seems a little too episodic in night one (this happened, then that happened, then this other thing happened), Mirren is always a joy to watch. (Indeed, the decision to lay bare Elizabeth's personality matches the film's openness with showing bloody beheadings.)

Each part of "Elizabeth I" focuses on her relationship with a man. In night one, she fancies the Earl of Leicester (Jeremy Irons). In the superior night two, the queen has the hots for Leicester's stepson, the Earl of Essex (Hugh Dancy), who improbably fancies the queen, three decades his senior, until hubris gets the better of him.

As much as the film is about Elizabeth's forbidden desires, it's also about the politics that get in the way of her happiness, whether it's a royal match the people prohibit or a young suitor who is distrusted by her counselors.

"The only things that will kiss in this affair is lawyer's pens and lawyer's papers," the queen says when she seeks a sham marriage to a fellow royal.

It's fascinating to watch Mirren vacillate between a wise ruler who's cognizant she's being used by Essex to a devoted friend to her top counselors to a terrorizing boss who orders beheadings only to have deep regrets later.

"My dogs wear my collars, sir, and let no one at this table forget that fact," she tells her advisers during a particularly contentious meeting.

"My desire was to make it a mercurial character, rather than a strong heavy," Mirren said in January at an HBO press conference in Pasadena, Calif. "She was an incredibly passionate woman, a woman who could be so angry that she literally fainted with anger, and at the same time who could laugh so hard, especially at vulgar comedy, that she literally fell off her chair. She was a woman of extremes."

Mirren successfully gets that sense across.

Irons is at his dashing best, but Dancy gets to evince more character development as Essex grows from an infatuated young man into a limelight-loving hothead.

"Elizabeth I" offers tragedy and turmoil on a grand scale, but Mirren's performance and Nigel Williams' script ensure that the film will entertain modern-day masses -- or at least those with a thirst for British drama.


TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Ask TV questions at www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.


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