Impeccably British for mostly good and a little ill, this sweeping HBO-Channel 4 presentation features the kind of towering, “for your consideration”-worthy performance from Helen Mirren that almost defies conventional superlatives. Somewhat plodding through its opening hour, “Elizabeth I” gains steam and then soars through its concluding installment — as Mirren’s tantrum-throwing queen becomes entangled with the much-younger Earl of Essex. Given the dearth of juicy material for, er, “mature” actresses, watching Mirren sinks her teeth into this role is a treat worth savoring.
Beginning 20 years into Elizabeth’s reign in 1579, Nigel Williams’ script finds the Queen being pressured to marry so that she can birth an heir, thus avoiding a bloody succession battle; and beset by Europe’s Catholic powers, who would topple her from England’s Protestant throne.
Her advisers, in fact, elbow her toward a strategic marriage to a French prince, as she realizes there’s no hope of elevating one of her subjects by wedding the Earl of Leicester (Jeremy Irons), who is not only her lover but her most trusted confidant.
Those matters are complicated, meanwhile, by the threat of war with Spain and potential for rebellion surrounding her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots (Barbara Flynn).
After the pope essentially issues a death warrant against Elizabeth, gruesome beheadings and torture thwart a plot to depose her. As for her private affairs, the conflicted Leicester eventually succumbs to illness around the time England scores its glorious victory over the Spanish armada.
Virtually on his deathbed, Leicester bequeaths his relationship with Elizabeth to his stepson, the Earl of Essex (Hugh Dancy), roughly three decades junior to the by-now-fiftysomething monarch. Yet Elizabeth is so powerfully drawn to Essex that she flirts and fusses like a schoolgirl, prompting him to accurately note that she stares at him “as if you were deciding whether or not to eat me.”
Tom Hooper, who previously directed Mirren in “Prime Suspect 6,” indulges Williams’ penchant for long, theatrical monologues, which require a little getting used to in the slow early going.
Gradually, however, as with the best British costume drama, the narrative becomes absorbing. Mirren also proves more comfortable and intriguing as Elizabeth ages, going from a reliance on Leicester to a near-obsession with Essex — exploding into magnificent, electrifying rages whenever deprived of his affections. With due respect to Bette Davis and Errol Flynn in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,” the age disparity here, and Dancy’s callow portrayal of Essex, make their relationship all the more fascinating, and at times a little creepy.
Mesmerizing as she is, Mirren is surrounded by a fine cast, including Ian McDiarmid and Patrick Malahide as royal advisers who can only roll their eyes at the queen’s romantic flights of fancy.
Nor does the word “sumptuous” quite do justice to this Lithuanian-shot production, which features a theatrical array of extras and sprawling sets as well as wildly baroque costumes, highlighted by Mike O’Neill’s spectacularly regal frocks.
Still, peel back the outward finery and this is ultimately Mirren’s show. And if she developed an appreciation for shiny baubles while sauntering around in those fabulous gowns and dropping third-person references such as, “We forbid you access to our presence,” there are surely additional ornaments to come.