HBO's 'Elizabeth I': Her Royal Majesty Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren as the lusty Virgin Queen carries a torch for Jeremy Irons as the Earl of Leicester in the miniseries.
Helen Mirren as the lusty Virgin Queen carries a torch for Jeremy Irons as the Earl of Leicester in the miniseries. (By Giles Keyte -- Associated Press)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 22, 2006

Could there be such a thing as a boringly great performance? Probably, but the performance Helen Mirren gives in "Elizabeth I," HBO's lusty and lavish historical spectacular, is anything but.

No matter how opulent this production, Mirren is never upstaged, and she is the best reason to keep watching (Part 1 premieres tonight; Part 2 airs Monday). Mirren makes the first Elizabeth an even more fascinating and anguished enigma than Bette Davis did on the big screen in the 1939 epic "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex."

Her performance rises up and takes charge right from the go-thou. By osmosis or whatever, Mirren and Elizabeth become one. And as Mirren plays her, Elizabeth is a woman who has unquestionably earned the privilege of being addressed as "Your Majesty."

Her majesty is formidable, but there are also moments of wicked wit. When told by a toadying minion that she is "only old in years," Mirren's Elizabeth explodes in sardonic rage, screaming: " 'Only?! Only?!?' "

The film covers the latter half of her reign (starting in 1579) and divides neatly into two peculiar love affairs. In Part 1, she carries a huge torch for the Earl of Leicester, played by Jeremy Irons. They have passionate moments, but none, apparently, that would compromise Elizabeth's reputation as the Virgin Queen.

In Part 2, Liz opts for a younger lover, Hugh Dancy as the arrogantly handsome Earl of Essex, a man with too much faith in his own sexual charm, and it appears she's the Virgin Queen no more.

The latter affair begins with Elizabeth kneeling to Essex, a humbling role reversal. She tenderly attends to wounds he suffered in a jousting match. "You're very kind, mum," he says with artificial humility. "I could be even kinder," she purrs, at least to the degree a lioness can purr. The affair turns her into a bubbly schoolgirl. Even meetings with what might be called her Cabinet find her full of vigor and pluck.

Enraged when she learns Essex has been sent to Lisbon without her approval, she joins a worshiping throng to celebrate his return. When Essex is charged with impregnating a young woman of the court, however, Elizabeth is the smitten kitten no more, roaring, "Get him out of my sight!" Eventually, a lover's quarrel morphs into a small-scale civil war, one in which Essex and his forces don't stand a chance of seizing the throne, but try anyway.

When Elizabeth's patience shatters and she orders the execution of the very Catholic Mary Queen of Scots (played craftily by Barbara Flynn), religious fervor is so relentless that the doomed woman is prevented from reciting her Catholic prayers in her last moments.

"Elizabeth I" is about a lesson that history tries but fails to teach, whether in Europe of the 16th century or the Middle East of the 21st: Polluting politics with religion, and vice versa, remains destructive folly.

In the film, mixing the two (Protestant England vs. Catholic Spain and France) is parallel to mingling the lust for power with just plain lust. These were very lusty times and -- a viewer is graphically reminded -- very bloody ones, too. The film contains some of the most realistic beheadings seen on screen. Poor Mary doesn't die from the first whack of the ax and requires, horrifically yet almost comically, a second. Torture and murder were nearly art forms, albeit grisly ones.

"Elizabeth I" -- written by Nigel Williams and directed by Tom Hooper -- is perhaps the ultimate in unflinching looks. Some viewers might long for a flinch, especially when political enemies become literally gutless during orgies of retribution.

Although character assassination might have largely replaced the literal kind in the intervening centuries, politics remains a brutal and heartless business.

Elizabeth had the stomach for it, but even at her coldest and most self-delusional, she was undone by another kind of treachery: the torment of a broken heart.

Elizabeth I (two hours) debuts tonight at 8 on HBO. The conclusion (also two hours) airs Monday night at 8.

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