This may be a television mini-series but it has the quality, detail and acting superiority of an excellent motion picture. Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) has been on the throne for twenty years. It's 1579 and she is 45 years old. We meet her at the conclusion of a discrete but public examination to establish for all to know that she is capable of bearing a child. The need for her to marry, both to ensure an heir and to ensure her survival as Queen, obsesses her councilors. For Elizabeth, it's not so simple. She is not just a queen, but a sovereign ruler, anointed, in her words, by God. She has the same passionate need for love and intimacy as her subjects. She probably realizes that marriage, in her era, would most likely lead to her own inevitable subordination to her husband if he is English or the subordination of the country to another country if he is foreign. She most probably realizes that by not making a choice, she keeps all the choices on the bargaining table.
And, of course, there is the question of her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, now a prisoner but a continuing threat to her rule, whom her councillors want dead. There is her own passionate nature focussed on Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Jeremy Irons), and, later, on the young Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex (Hugh Dancy). One will die in bed; one will lose his head. There are religious issues so deeply held they could, and have, split the nation. Before long, there will be the threat of Spanish invasion to deal with. Through it all, Elizabeth procrastinates, twists and turns, takes a step forward and then one back. If we didn't already know her story so well, we might be surprised when we realize that in time the religious question is finessed with little violence, that Mary is dealt with, that the Spanish fail, that her people come to love her (more or less), that she invariably chooses her councilors well and they become dedicated to her, that she will be the one to make the final decisions and that rebellion is a fatal choice for those who disagree with her, even if they are one of her favorites. She is, in fact, a ruler who makes mistakes, can be swayed by vanity and avoids choices, but who when it matters makes the right choices.
Helen Mirren does a masterful job, taking Elizabeth from 45 to Elizabeth's death at 69. Elizabeth could be fickle and imperious, but she had a core of steel, particularly when it came to defending her realm and her prerogatives. Mirren is such a dynamic and skilled actor it is entirely believable that the young Earl of Essex just might find the aging Queen an agreeable and intimate companion. Mirren is equally believable in demonstrating the iron will of a Queen who moves against someone she may well have loved.
Mirren is at her best in dealing with complex emotions. When Elizabeth at last is brought to sign the order of execution for Mary but then tells the clerk to keep her action secret and not to show the document to anyone until she tells him, Mirren gives us a subtle portrait of Elizabeth, a Queen who knows it's in her best interests to have Mary executed but who flinches from being the one to make the order happen. At some level, Elizabeth must know that her order will not be kept secret, that it will be given to her councillors and that Walsingham will see to it that the execution takes place immediately. As Walsingham says, the Queen wants Mary executed but doesn't want to be the one responsible. It's a complex set of motives and emotions that Mirren has to display; they range from her reluctant signing to her hysteria when she learns Mary has been executed.
Equally impressive is Mirren demonstrating the ability of Elizabeth to rouse the rabble with a combination of patriotism and bravado. She does a bravura job with Elizabeth's famous words before her army awaiting the Spanish invasion: "Let tyrants fear; I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good will of my subjects. And therefore I am come amongst you at this time, not as for my recreation or sport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all; to lay down, for my God, and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honor and my blood, even the dust. I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England, too!"
While Mirren dominates the story, all the actors are excellent. In major roles, in addition to Irons and Dancy, there is Patrick Malahyde as Sir Francis Walsingham, Toby Jones as Robert Cecil, Barbara Flynn as Mary and Ian McDiarmid as William Cecil. The production is sumptuous and the DVD picture is immaculate.