28 January, 2006

The Virgin Queen. TV review

Well, well, you wait thirty years for a TV drama series about Elizabeth I and then two come along at once. I wonder if someone noticed in 2003 that it was the 400th anniversary of Elizabeth's death and this is the production lag? First up was Channel 4's drama Elizabeth, screened before Christmas. I missed the first episode so can't comment on that, but I watched the rest. I recall being mildly annoyed by some of the (to my mind) over-dramatic non-events, such as having Elizabeth meet Mary Queen of Scots in person (at least they made it a clandestine visit), having Elizabeth narrowly escape assassination by a knife-wielding Catholic, and having Elizabeth present at Robert Dudley's deathbed. But none of these mattered to the story, and Helen Mirren's superb portrayal of Elizabeth outshone any such minor quibbles.

So how did The Virgin Queen compare? On the evidence of the first episode, I would say it's not brilliant, but it's not bad either. The script was free of annoying dialogue, though I thought it was rather low on complexity and depth. I didn't get a strong sense of Elizabeth as a clever young woman surviving the aftermath of the Wyatt rebellion by her own wits, or of a keen political mind playing off factions, or of the deeply divided country she inherited. Elizabeth came over as a girl who happened to outlive her sister, rather than one who made her own fate.

Despite the dark, grainy shots of Traitors' Gate, dungeons and torture chambers, the Tower didn't conjure up for me the intended sense of dread. I got no strong sense that Elizabeth really feared she was about to die; perhaps the script was intended to show her being calm under pressure, but if so it didn't work for me. Sometimes the script also seemed excessively obvious; for example, it reminded us of Anne Boleyn's fate by having Elizabeth find her name carved on the wall of her chamber in the Tower. Compare that with the lines in Elizabeth R that do the equivalent job, which run something like "I shall have a swordsman from France. She could not deny me that. There is a precedent." Much more subtle, and to my mind much more effective.

Anne-Marie Duff made a convincing Elizabeth, although I didn't feel that the script gave her as much to work with as it could have. There seemed to be rather less steel in this Elizabeth and rather more of the giddy girl.

For me, the big disappointment was the portrayal of Robert Dudley. Given the series title, I imagine that Elizabeth's love life or lack thereof is going to be a key thread in this drama. For that to work, you need a powerful screen presence for Robert Dudley. I assume that if you're reading this blog you already know the story, but if not, Robert Dudley was widely believed at the time to be Elizabeth's lover, and their relationship (whatever its details) scandalised the courts of Europe and made ELizabeth deeply unpopular in her own country. Unless Elizabeth was a very silly woman, Robert Dudley must have exercised a tremendous attraction for her to risk her throne for him. In a TV drama, this demands that the actor has to be alpha-male hot. He should make the cathode ray tube sizzle and the remote control swoon. In James Bond terms, we're talking Sean Connery, at least. You know what I mean, ladies. So what possessed the casting director to choose someone who looks more like Roger Moore's kid brother? Tom Hardy does his best with the role, but he simply looks far too young for the part. He looks like a pampered boy, not even old enough to be married, let alone to be a charismatic adventurer bent on royal adultery. The script gives him no help either; he is made to say to Elizabeth that he married his wife because his father told him to. Not very alpha-male, poor boy. Unless later episodes reveal some hidden depths, I'm afraid I'm not going to find this a very convincing relationship. (Channel 4 cast Jeremy Irons, by the way. Now that's more like it).

Has anyone else seen either or both? (I make no apologies for insularity this time; both these series have 'Export' written all over them). What did you think?


Gabriele Campbell said...

I agree, that Dudley actor in Virgin Queen looks like a somewhat reatarded boy rather than an alpha male. Heck, this country has a Gerard Butler and Ioan Gruffud to cast in such roles, or if you go for slightly older, Sean Bean. Then I could understand why Lizzy's got the hotties for Dudley. ;-)

The meeting between Elizabeth and Mary just seems to good to not invent. It's a tradition since Friedrich Schiller's (1759-1805)play, and Donizetti uses it in his opera (which is to some extent based on Schiller anyway). Schiller also has the Catholic knife assassin.

Which reminds me, I must have some notes about Maria Stuart somewhere in my files.

Rick said...

Needless to say, I am a sucker for anything about Elizabeth, since my Catherine was inspired by her - even though she has turned out more like an improved Mary Queen of Scots. (And I agree with Gabriele: Even though a meeting between them is non-historical - in fact, the fact that they didn't meet is historically important - the impulse is hard to resist!)

I haven't seen the Helen Mirren one, but Virgin Queen was shown over here a few weeks ago.

You are so right about Dudley. He should make all you ladies go weak at the knees, because it took a heroic effort on Elizabeth's part to resist him. (And a wonderful contrast to Mary's inability to resist the far less testosterone-oozing Darnley.) This guy was not persuasive.

A few forgiveable oddities. The actress playing Bloody Mary is quite attractive, and the actor playing Philip II much older than he was at that time. Also, the actress playing Bess's governess Kat Ashley, a mother figure to her, seems only a few years older than she was.

This may be a bit of a spoiler, since I'm not sure which part it was in, but they got one famous line so wrong - when Elizabeth says "We shall have but one mistress here, and no master!"

In the miniseries, she basically wails it out, falling to the floor as she does. Wrong! Granted that we have no idea of the actual scene, but she ought to be channeling Athena when she says it - on her feet, her voice ringing out. Because, dammit, she was the alpha-est of alpha females, and the two things she loved more than Sweet Robin were England and her throne.

Carla said...

And Lettice Knollys was much younger than Elizabeth, whereas the actress looks about the same age, and if memory serves she was also in exile during Mary's reign, not serving Elizabeth. I suppose they want to play up the love triangle aspect, since she married Dudley secretly, so they want Lettice in from the beginning. (With this Dudley, though, Elizabeth would surely say 'You're welcome to him, darling').

By the way, do you agree with me this guy would be absolutely right for Darnley? Or for the Earl of Essex. I wonder if the casting director muddled up Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester with Robert Devereux Earl of Essex? It's about the most plausible explanation I've thought of.

Rick - I think we probably get that line in tonight's episode, and your description tells me they really have missed the steel in Elizabeth. They seem to have made her more of a Mary Queen of Scots. Sigh.

When you get the Helen Mirren version, do watch it. I think you'll love it. Helen Mirren gets the Athena aspect absolutely, compellingly right, her relationship with Dudley is totally convincing, and she ALSO makes a spectacular fool of herself over Essex.

Rick said...

I think you're right that Lettice was in exile, or at least that her parents were, and presumably she tagged along.

Really, Lettice, Kat Ashley, and Bess all looked roughly the same age! Even apart from the love-triangle element I can understand the dramatic desire to give her girlfriends about her age - Catherine's maids of honor have prominent roles for just this reason.

But if Bloody Mary had looked more like this one, Philip might have paid more attention to her. ;)

Yes, the guy who played Leicester would make a good Darnley! Except for not being tall enough; Darnley was called a "long lad." But otherwise, yes - he was very much more like Darnley than Leicester. I would not cast him as Essex, who I gather had a very alpha-male persona, whatever his other shortcomings.

Bess's taste in men generally ran to alpha guys - in fact, her favorites were all pretty much in the mold of Tom Seymour, except for the Duke of Alencon.

And yeah, they generally missed the steel in Elizabeth.

I hope the Mirren version comes around here! I don't have a DVD player, so alas I won't be able to see it if it's only available on DVD. :(

Bernita said...

Haven't seen it of course, but your comments allow me to visualize as well as hit on exactly the sort of items that would turn my crank.
Thank you.

Alex Bordessa said...

Gave it a couple of episodes before commenting. I'm inclined to agree about the general lack of steel in Elizabeth, though I can see the path that the screenplay writer has taken. Indeed the whole production is geared to showing a very lively, sparky Elizabeth. This is at the expense of real toughness, but makes her seem more human. Elizabeth is not entirely control of her fate (if Mary hadn't died ...?), but she does well with what she's given, finding out how to use the power she's been given. I quite like it, and will continue to watch.

I only saw a bit of Helen Mirren's Elizabeth. As ever, a commanding actress. Her Elizabeth seemed pretty fickle, but definitely in charge.

btw, I note that the music is by Martin Phipps. He also did the recent BBC serial North & South and his music there was similarly distinctive (though in a very different style) For the Virgin Queen, I presume he's gone for a pastiche of music of the era, with some slightly wild tones added. Not keen on the sudden clunky notes though. Very interesting, generally very coherent. I suspect this chap is going to go far.

Rick said...

I actually liked it; I'm just very picky about my Elizabeths!

Lively and sparky yes, but I do think the toughness could be conveyed without dehumanizing her. At least I hope so, since I'm dealing with an equally tough young woman!

Carla said...

Fascinating how we all pick up on slightly different aspects - Alex commenting on the music, for example, whereas I know nothing about music and it goes over my head.

It's getting colder and more interesting after the second episode. Maybe I'll post again when I've seen the complete set?

Rick said...

Are they showing it there in four segments? Here it was two 2-hour segments. By all means post again when you've seen all of it!

Carla said...

Yes, four one-hour episodes here, on Sunday evenings.