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Queen Elizabeth I - known as the Virgin Queen - had a long and eventful life; as Queen of England, she survived various plots to murder her, under her rule England successfully repulsed the Spanish Armada, and she oversaw religious reforms (including the institution of the Book of Common Prayer) that prevented religious civil war, to name a few high points in a 65-year reign. It's no wonder, then, that more film and television programs have been made about her than of any other British monarch. One of the most well-known renditions in recent years is Cate Blanchett's portrayal of the queen in Elizabeth, but that film only addresses the early part of her reign. The HBO miniseries Elizabeth I tackles nearly the whole span of her career, starting with Elizabeth firmly established as Queen, but by no means sure of the right path to take with leading her country... especially in the tricky matter of who she should marry.
Helen Mirren is given a formidable acting challenge here: how to convincingly present a queen who governed her country with skill and charisma, but who was often unable to control her own emotional reactions, most notably to the men who were personally important to her. The difficulty is even greater in the second part of the miniseries, in which the aging Elizabeth becomes enamored of a far younger man. With our culture's assumptions about aging, we often find it difficult to view older people as capable of strong emotions or physical desire; the bias is even stronger against older women. In this context, it would be easy to see Elizabeth as ridiculous or pathetic, but Mirren's performance makes any such conclusion impossible. She gives us an Elizabeth who is keenly aware of the incongruity between the strength of her desire and the frailty of her aging body; Mirren's Elizabeth is, I think, one who harbors anger not just those who betray her, but also at herself of being unable to "govern her own heart." Through it all, we see Elizabeth's profound dedication to the people of England; though she makes mistakes, she is always fundamentally determined to serve England as its ruler, even when it means giving up her own happiness.
It's impressive to see how well Mirren handles the character of Elizabeth; her portrayal of the queen is entirely believable and always consistent... even in showing how Elizabeth was often maddeningly inconsistent. Mirren is surrounded by an excellent supporting cast, as well. Jeremy Irons is excellent in the role of the Earl of Leicester, and Hugh Dancy also delivers a strong and believable performance as the complicated young Earl of Essex. The many secondary characters are also handled well, both in the script and in the performances; many of the characters are to one degree or another ambiguous about their relationship with Elizabeth, giving us insight into the complicated mix of loyalty and self-interest that each person had to sort out for himself.
Elizabeth I is split into two parts, each running an hour and 45 minutes. It's a good length for the amount of material; we get the important incidents developed in sufficient detail, while the story smoothly jumps over intervening months or years as needed to keep the narration moving forward. The first half is slightly stronger than the second, primarily because the beginnings of stories always tend to be more interesting than the middles. In this case, Elizabeth's conflicts and challenges in the earlier years of her reign are somewhat more compelling than those in the later years. Overall, though, the series does an admirable job of keeping the dramatic tension and interest level consistently high throughout the entire program.
Elizabeth I is a two-disc set, packaged in an attractively designed cardboard case.
Elizabeth I is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, at its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which gives it a pleasingly theatrical appearance (complemented by the excellent cinematography). The image quality is adequate, but not as good as it could be by a fair amount. The colors are excellent, with flesh tones looking natural while other colors are bright and vibrant. However, contrast tends to be on the heavy side, and the image overall has a grainy texture.
The 2.0 audio provides a pleasant listening experience, with the music balanced well with the rest of the soundtrack. Dialogue is crisp and distinct at all times. English closed captions are provided.
Not much is included by way of special features. The "Making of Elizabeth I" is a 17-minute promotional-style featurette that doesn't tell viewers a whole lot more than they've gotten from watching the series itself. "Uncovering the Real Elizabeth I" is much more interesting, though it only runs seven minutes: here we get a historian commenting on the historical accuracy of the miniseries and offering a few additional facts about Elizabeth.
Elizabeth I is a very enjoyable miniseries, giving us a historically accurate look at the full length of Elizabeth's reign while also dramatizing the personal conflicts of England's most famous queen. The program is done with attention to detail at all levels, from the excellent casting across the board, to the lush attention to detail in costumes and interior sets. Highly recommended.