Queen Elizabeth I is one of those complex and larger-than-life historical figures that actors just love to sink their teeth into.
Among others, such grand dames as Bette Davis, Judith Anderson and Glenda Jackson have offered their takes on the “Virgin Queen,” who ruled England for 45 turbulent years starting in the mid-16th century.
And here comes the newest Elizabeth: Helen Mirren, who in such films and TV series as “Gosford Park,” “The Madness of King George” and “Prime Suspect” has proven one of the finest actresses of her generation. With all due respect to those who have inhabited the role before her, Mirren has created the defining portrait of the capricious but formidable monarch.
From the moment she arrives on screen in HBO’s new “Elizabeth I,” in what could be an embarrassing scene of a royal doctor checking the queen’s virginity, she dominates the four-hour miniseries. She is by turn lonely, randy, needy, sarcastic, jealous and manipulative. She can be politically astute at one moment, emotionally naive the next.
In other words, Mirren hasn’t tried to make complete sense of Elizabeth the queen or Elizabeth the person. Rather, she has accepted that the ruler often was unknowable, a woman of contradictions. Where most actors might cling to the smaller, more comprehensible slices of Elizabeth’s persona, Mirren has gone for the whole thing, with lust and great passion.
It is a great performance, strong enough that it overcomes the flaws of “Elizabeth I.”
The series covers two distinct periods. Part one is set 20 years into her reign when she fell in love with the Earl of Leicester (Jeremy Irons); executed Mary, Queen of Scots; and defeated Spain in battle. The second comes toward the end of the reign when she fell in lust with the much younger Earl of Essex (Hugh Dancy of “King Arthur”), a lover she later executed for treason.
The first two hours are the strongest, since Irons is a superb match for Mirren, and British TV actress Barbara Flynn gives a nuanced performance as Mary. When they depart, the miniseries loses some of its steam, particularly since Dancy, though a decent enough actor, can’t hold his own with Mirren.
But all four hours have some underlying issues. The script by screenwriter-novelist Nigel Williams takes some liberties with historical facts and wanders all over the place with the tone of the dialogue. (Some lines sound 21st century; others sound pseudo-Shakespearean.) Williams also hasn’t found a way to shorthand some of the history, and the result is some very plodding exposition.
Still, aided by the direction of Tom Hopper (“Prime Suspect 6”) and the gorgeous recreation of Elizabethan England, Mirren is so good as Elizabeth that you may not notice the problems as much as you would have. This is acting for the ages and should not be missed.
The four-hour mini-series “Elizabeth I” airs 8 p.m. today and 8 p.m. Monday on HBO.