I am an unabashed, gushing Helen Mirren fan, due in large part to this piece of work. In Elizabeth I, this sumptuous, lusty look at the latter half of the Virgin Queen's reign, we are treated not only to the great range of Mirren's acting skill, but also to a beautifully told history lesson (there are very minor historial liberties taken; Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots likely never met, and if they did, it would've been a well-kept secret, as is intimated here).
In the first half of the story, we examine Elizabeth's complex and passionate relationship with Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, played with great depth by the always terrific Jeremy Irons; we also look at the pressure put on her to marry and to secure the English Protestant Church, and at her difficulty in deciding to have her Catholic cousin executed. While I will acknowledge that the film does get off to a little bit of a slow start, I think that this is actually a good thing because the audience is so ready and yet so unprepared for the first time Elizabeth I loses her temper. The first half covers about 10 years and is extremely well done; the writing, directing, costumes, sets, and acting are all absolutely first-rate. Patrick Malahide, Ian McDiarmid, Jeremy Irons, and of course Dame Helen are all spellbinding in every scene, and with the exception of Irons (who does not appear in the second half for reasons I will not specify so as not to spoil anything for those who haven't seen it), their performances continue to amaze in the second half.
By 1589 things had changed a great deal for Elizabeth I; her reign is secure but her self-esteem is not. With age she has become more vain and more prone to lashing out at those who threaten to show her up, and there are many instances in this half of the story where she loses her temper. It is nearly impossible for me to pick a favourite scene, so I won't; I will simply say that all of the scenes where she is angry or upset left me sitting wide-eyed, not only due to Mirren's unparalleled acting skills but also due to the type of woman that Elizabeth I was. Mirren showcases her passion, her vulnerability, her fierceness, and her devotion to her country and her people in every scene, and she is truly amazing to watch (for the record: I knew almost nothing about her before I saw this film; seeing her in this made me want to see everything she's done to date and though she is great in everything, this is my favourite performance of hers). As in the first half, we are treated to a look at how Elizabeth I's personal decisions and behaviour affected her political decisions, and it's fascinating.
I cannot say enough about this movie. Also, I have not mentioned Hugh Dancy or Tobey Jones yet; both are great. Eveything about this piece of work is great, and if you are even remotely interested in British history, costumes, or fabulous performances from ridiculously talented actors, see this. Dame Helen rules.