First a bit of history:
The world of the Tudors and their friends, hangers-on and rivals from the time of Lancaster/York conflict, reads like a soap opera, and indeed it was a time of intrigue, deception, jockeying for position and occasional outright evil behaviour. The executioner's task at the Tower was never wanting for more; the Tudors, Seymours, Brandons, Dudleys and other such families were intertwined in the political, religious and dynastic machinations of the time, and sometimes this late medieval machinery caught up the people as it would grind along.
Lady Jane Grey was not born to be queen. This does not make her unique among monarchs in British history; when the current queen Elizabeth was born, it seemed very remote that she should ever advance to be monarch. Indeed, even the great Henry VIII wasn't the heir apparent when born; his brother Arthur was Prince of Wales -- Henry married his brother's widow Catherine of Aragon, and the successive sequence of wives and offspring commenced from there. Lady Jane Grey was born of none of these wives, nor even from Henry directly, but rather through one of his younger siblings, Mary, one-time queen of France.
Lady Jane Grey was a mere teenager when she came to power, such as it was. A precocious and intellectual child, she still lacked the political savvy of the Privy Council and other chief executors and leaders from Henry and Edward's reigns; she was the not-always-willing but not-unwilling pawn of her family's ambitions -- at one time thought to be a possible wife for the king Edward, her family jumped at the chance of settling the crown directly on her head, under the ostensible purpose of preserving a Protestant succession.
Ultimately, the venture was doomed to failure, for as much as the royal and parliamentary authorities like to believe they rule England, ultimately it has been the people en masse, and those whom they do not support do not last long. The common folk, still largely Catholic in leaning, also understood royal succession in simple terms -- Mary Tudor was the next in line for the throne, so they supported her (largely they would support Elizabeth, a moderate Protestant, for the same reason five years later). Lady Jane fell victim again to the problems of politics; Mary Tudor, once queen, was inclined to be lenient until it was felt that Jane's presence continued to be a rallying point for Protestant dissidents.
Jane Grey was queen for nine short days, during a period of great turmoil.
Here endeth the lesson. And much of the similarity with the film.
This film is historical romance, which makes it necessary to fudge the facts a bit. We are introduced to the scheming people around the ailing teen-aged king Edward; John Dudley (played admirably by John Wood) as Duke of Northumberland tries to ensure the Protestant succession through ruling out Mary, but also tries to secure his own hegemony by ruling out the independent Elizabeth. Lady Jane could be controlled, or so promised her mother, Frances Grey, Duchess of Suffolk (played by Sara Kestelman). Patrick Stewart plays Lady Jane's father, the Duke of Suffolk, but his role here is rather understated.
Truly the best performance in the film is that of Helena Bonham-Carter, in one of her early roles (fresh from the Merchant-Ivory production, 'A Room with a View'). She plays the intelligent but not always swift-on-the-uptake Lady Jane, competent in academic subjects, scrupulously moral, and history's plaything. Whether all of these descriptors were true of the actual Lady Jane, we cannot know. What we do know is that Lady Jane in fact despised her arranged husband Guildford Dudley, younger son of the manipulative Duke of Northumberland. However, for purposes of the film, this is a romance, rocky at the start, but nonetheless a love affair that blossoms quickly - well, it would have to, given the time frame. Cary Elwes, in his first major role, performs well as the companion to the unlikely and unwilling queen.
Elwes and Bonham-Carter have good chemistry together on the screen for the most part. Bonham-Carter's other primary relationship is brief but substantial in the form of an intellectual attachment to the kindly Dr. Feckenham, a Catholic clergyman who is willing to engage in the theological discussion with a Protestant; Michael Horden gives a memorable performance as the intercessor between the Greys and Mary Tudor.
The cinematography is very good, stunning in a few points. Costumes and sets are well done, and music overlay is worthwhile.
The story progresses through an abbreviated presentation of King Edward's illness, leading to the necessity for succession. The various intrigues and issues are collapsed into a few, primarily dominated by Northumberland; the ambassador of Spain and his dealings with Queen Mary also factor into the plot. The impoverishment of the people, and the lack of popularity the ruling class had at the time is shown; the Protestant Reformations in England were not popular movements at the start.
As history dictates, both the younger Dudley and Lady Jane, nine-day queen, lose their heads over the affair. We are given a glimpse of the historical reality that Lady Jane's mother was in fact 'rehabilitated' into the court of Queen Mary, but her husband Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, is killed for his involvement in an uprising against Queen Mary.
Setting aside the historical inaccuracies, this is a good film, well produced and well acted, and does serve to highlight some of the major historical themes of the time. Perhaps it will inspire the viewer to read more and learn the actual events of the time, one of the more colourful in royal history.