Few English monarchs have been portrayed on screen as often, or as colourfully, as Queen Elizabeth I. It’s not hard to guess why: the queen’s life was long, complex, and entwined with some of the biggest personalities and best-known historical events known to history. There are, therefore, far more than ten portrayals of Elizabeth in film and on television, but here I’ve limited myself to those productions I’ve seen and, to one extent or another, enjoyed. Still, some couldn’t make the cut (notably Jean Simmons as the young Elizabeth, who was perfectly good in a film I otherwise found a chore to get through, and Vanessa Redgrave, who doubled with her daughter Joely Richardson in playing Elizabeth at different ages in the decidedly anti-Shakespeare “Anonymous”). What you’ll find here are my top ten performances (with the best winning the Number One spot) and the reasons why these actresses (and their productions) deserve your attention.
10. Florence Eldridge in “Mary of Scotland” (1936)
Although “Mary of Scotland” (adapted from a Maxwell Anderson play) received generally favourable reviews upon its release, it fared less well at the box office; indeed, it was one of the flops which led to Katharine Hepburn being labelled, briefly, as ‘box office poison’. Overall, the film is good for what it is: a heavily romanticised, barely-historical epic, which boasts a gutsy performance by Hepburn (even if no attempt is made to disguise her New England accent), even as it falls into the old trap of pairing Mary with a roguish but heroic Bothwell (played by Fredric March, who manages a fair Scottish accent and is contraposed against Douglas Walton’s comically foppish Lord Darnley).
Florence Eldridge, as Elizabeth, gives a suitably snakish performance: her role is to be Mary’s nemesis, and she delivers. Both women are theatrical in their performances, but this works well; as the real Elizabeth (who had been trained in rhetoric and the power of performative speech) recognised, monarchs had much in common with stage actors. Like many adaptations of Mary Queen’s Scots’s story, the picture can’t resist having the two queens meet in person (which of course they never did). Like every version which throws them together, the dramatized interaction simply can’t live up to its promise. Nevertheless, the film remains a solid, if stolid, watch, for the performances alone (and this despite the costumes and sets owing more to the 1930s than the 1560s). As Elizabeth, Eldridge holds her own against Hepburn, and it’s the leading ladies’ performances which make the movie worth anyone’s time.
Best line: “You were born too close to my throne.”
9. Anne Marie Duff in “The Virgin Queen” (2005)
2005’s “The Virgin Queen” was an ambitious project, given it set out to cover ground already known to audiences from 1971’s “Elizabeth R” (of which more later). The serial was somewhat hampered by only having four episodes in which to cover Elizabeth’s entire reign (from her time as the Lady Elizabeth under Mary I’s regime until her death in 1603). Although it boasted a superb soundtrack and some great sets, it thus had to cut corners (notably, for example, in barely featuring Mary Stuart’s story, and focusing instead on Elizabeth’s personal relationships, particularly with Robert Dudley, played by Tom Hardy).
Duff did a reasonable job in a demanding role weighted with expectations. She certainly looked the part (those wonderful eyes), and she seemed to grow into the role as the episodes went on (although the bizarre old-age makeup used on her and the lovely Sienna Guillory, who played a vixenish Lettice Knollys, made them look more like aliens than ageing women). She did, however, occasionally lapse into screaming and petulantly roaring to convey strength, and unfortunately she hadn’t quite the theatrical power of projection to make it work. When she was playing the subtle Elizabeth – as when meeting James Melville and showing off her political nous – she was superb, and her voice rose to the occasion. When delivering bombastic speeches to more than one person – such as the Tilbury speech – she was simply outshone by actresses with more commanding presences who had delivered those same words with far more vocal power. Duff was also probably hampered by a script which occasionally relied on telling rather than showing – for example, when she announces that she speaks five languages and has been given the finest classical education, viewers will be more inclined to think, ‘Really?’ than to believe her. For me, this is a good performance in an enjoyable, if limited, show – but I never really felt I was watching anything more than a performance.
Best line [screamed]: “I will have but one mistress here, and no master! Do you hear me? I will have no man rule over me!”
8. Flora Robson in “Fire Over England” (1937)
“Fire Over England” is a curious film, as much for its gung-ho, pre-World War II romanticisation of a plucky England facing down a tyrannical European power as for its own plot and performances. The story revolves around the arrival of the 1588 Spanish Armada, which is set against the intertwined fictional tales of an assassination attempt against Elizabeth and the love story between one Lady Cynthia (played by Vivien Leigh at her most clipped and theatrical – worlds away from her naturalistic turn as Scarlett O’Hara) and Sir Michael (Leigh’s real-life partner, Laurence Olivier). Its sets resemble nothing so much as vast, high-ceilinged … well … sets … but it does make some attempt to capture Elizabethan styles in its costuming, and its depictions of sea battles (using sets and burning miniatures) are surprisingly good given their age.
In grand Shakespearean style, we hear of Elizabeth before we meet her (‘She has eyes in the back of her head!’ claims a panicked Lady Cynthia). When we do see her, the excellent Flora Robson gives it her all – and she never lets up as the film rolls on. She steals every scene she’s in, and although it’s another deeply theatrical performance, it’s one which fits the overall tone of the film. Robson’s Elizabeth manages by turns to be witty, frightening, endearing, and charming. Although the film tends towards hagiography when it comes to the queen, it is thanks to the actress’s performance that we don’t entirely like Elizabeth, even as the director is bathing her in light and the camera framing her as the apotheosis of English victory and pride.
Best line: “Who dares to speak for England in my presence? … I AM England.”
7. Judi Dench in “Shakespeare in Love” (1998)
Famously, Judi Dench won an Oscar for her role as Elizabeth in this movie despite only being seen on screen for around eight minutes in total. The film is widely considered a modern classic: it’s witty, colourful, and thoroughly enjoyable. Elizabeth, of course, is only a side attraction (shown at one point, in a moment that is completely ahistorical, attending the public theatre – which of course the real Queen Elizabeth never did). The meat of the story is the young William Shakespeare’s quest for love, which he finds with Gwyneth Paltrow’s fictional Viola. It is a film which any fan of Shakespearean drama or the Elizabethan period will lap up, despite it owing more to fantasy and romance than history (which, of course, the real William Shakespeare was not averse to when writing histories himself).
Dench’s Elizabeth is moving and magnetic, even if her most famous line (“I know something of a woman in a man's profession. Yes, by God, I do know about that.”) is so on-the-nose it could be a punch. Admittedly, she looks nothing like Elizabeth, even in the fine costumes, but that can hardly be helped; Dench conveys such a sense of weariness and wit, with a permanent twinkle in her eye, that it’s not difficult to see why the Academy would have chosen to honour her. She can rightly boast of being a high-point in a film which is already full of them.
Best line: “Playwrights teach us nothing about love. They make it pretty, they make it comical, or they make it lust, but they cannot make it true.”
6. Patience Collier in “Will Shakespeare” (1978)
It is surprising – and sometimes a little irritating – that Shakespeare-related dramas tend to play up the Bard’s relationship with Elizabeth I (for which there is no real contemporary evidence) far more than they do his relationship with the subsequent monarch, James VI/I (for which we do have evidence of a link). In 1978’s “Will Shakespeare” (alternatively titled “The Life of Shakespeare”), however, we see Will interact with both sovereigns (with Patience Collier as Elizabeth and Bill Paterson as James). The conceit of the serial is that we follow Tim Curry’s William Shakespeare as he arrives in London and begins his career as a playwright, with each of the six episodes centring on his creation of a different play. As so little is known for certain about the real Shakespeare’s private life, much of the drama is perforce speculative: but it is still highly enjoyable, and its depiction of 1590s London, with its narrow streets, hawkers and con artists on every corner, and baffled countrymen being gulled, is better than many similar big-screen versions. Tim Curry, naturally, is Tim Curry: brilliant.
Patience Collier’s Elizabeth appears in two episodes, one of which covers the attempted Essex coup. Her entanglement with Shakespeare comes in the depiction of the real-life story of Essex commissioning a performance of “Richard II” by the Bard’s troupe, which was intended to warn Londoners of the anarchy which might befall England under a weak monarch surrounded by parasites (in other words, Essex hoped a link would be made in hearts and minds between Richard and his sycophants and Elizabeth and her minister Robert Cecil). The true story is somewhat fictionalised in the episode via the pushing of Shakespeare’s involvement in the affair (there is no evidence he met Elizabeth during the government’s investigation into the command performance), but that hardly matters when the dramatization allows for such a superb performance by Patience Collier. As the elderly Elizabeth, she is appropriately cold, suspicious, and haughty – and one is never quite sure what she’s thinking; she also never has to yell or scream to demonstrate her authority, as her calmly-delivered threats and commands speak for themselves. Like Dench’s Elizabeth, this is a small part. Like Dench, Collier absolutely nails it; she looks the part, sounds the part, and commands the screen. Although the costumes are also great, I might offer one small complaint in the overdoing of the mythical white face paint – but it was apparently received wisdom in the 1970s that Elizabeth I indulged in clowning (alas! If only it had stayed in the 1970s!).
Best line: “There WAS … NO … deposition.”
5. Bette Davis in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (1939)
Like several other movies on this list, there are some issues with costuming and sets in this one, with spectacle being prized over historical accuracy. One thus finds Elizabeth living not in private wood-panelled apartments but in lush, seemingly ceiling-less studio sets. As the movie is based on another Maxwell Anderson play, there is also a heavy dose of romance, which is valued far more highly than is telling the true story of Elizabeth I and her last great favourite. Nevertheless, this is a hugely enjoyable, colourful film, which is not just held up by its central performances but elevated by them. From a wider historical perspective, it is doubly interesting in that it represents probably the last gasp of the old narrative (begun late in the real queen’s reign) that Essex was a dashing, starry-eyed hero. Almost every subsequent film, TV show, and indeed book, has recognised the starker reality: he was an ambitious and probably mentally ill young man intent on self-aggrandisement and beset by paranoia (though, as the old joke goes, that doesn’t mean there weren’t men out to get him).
Bette Davis was known in her day for being both an actress and a star; and here she shows us why she deserved both titles. Her Elizabeth I is jittery, occasionally bawdy, occasionally imperious, and often (probably too often) romantic and emotional. She comes across as a human being, deeply flawed and worried about running to seed (at only 31, Davis committed to the role by having her forehead and eyebrows shaved, wearing the requisite wigs, and embodying old age in her movements). The actress would play Elizabeth again in “The Virgin Queen” (1955), a less successful (and less watchable) movie; but in “Private Lives”, she is spellbinding. One might argue how close to the real queen she got (I certainly cannot imagine the historical Elizabeth entreating Essex, or anyone, to ‘take my throne! Take England!’), but one cannot dispute her ability to breathe fire into the character as written.
Best line: “To be a queen is to be less than human … to put pride before desire … to search men's hearts for tenderness and find only ambition.”
4. Cate Blanchett in “Elizabeth” (1998)
1998’s “Elizabeth” succeeded not because it was in any way historically accurate (it wasn’t), but because it boasted excellent performances by some of the world’s finest actors – including the leading lady herself. The story purports to tell the tale of the young Lady Elizabeth as she walks the dangerous path to the throne, becomes queen, and endures some turbulent early years. However, in doing so it mangles the historical record; assassinates those characters it wishes to present as villains or fools; depicts its lead living in draughty stone cathedrals rather than Renaissance palaces; and cheerfully invents characters and events for the purposes of telling its own version of history. That said, it is still an enjoyable movie (even if it is striking that Hollywood, between the 1930s and 1990s, had learned nothing about how interesting accurate history can be). It is thus a good ‘gateway’ into the period for those unfamiliar with it and looking for a way in (provided they are warned going in that very little of what they’re going to see is true).
The success of the film rests squarely on Cate Blanchett’s shoulders, and carry it she does. Her Elizabeth is intelligent, frightened, coy, and imperious. She clearly knows and understands the character, at least as constructed in this script, and she manages to convey an emotional journey as the insecure young Elizabeth, living under her sister’s reign, gives way to Elizabeth the queen: a harder, more jealous, more cynical animal. Her relationship with Joseph Fiennes’s Robert Dudley – and its breakdown in the face of her rising rank and his infidelity – is the emotional core of the story. Blanchett knows this and makes the most of it. Her performance as Elizabeth is therefore one of growth into a rather unpleasant role in life – and she carries off the development of the character with aplomb. It was this that the critics loved – certainly not the history (and, given the sequel lacked any similar character arc but retained the appalling history, it’s not surprising it never won the same plaudits).
Best line: “Lord Robert, you may make whores of my ladies but you shall not make one of me.”
3. Margot Robbie in “Mary Queen of Scots” (2018)
Given 2018’s “Mary Queen of Scots” didn’t fare all that well critically, it might be a surprise to see Margot Robbie’s performance ranking so highly. The film is, admittedly, not that interesting. This is largely because it comes across as rather a mishmash: the history is generally faithful (with some obvious exceptions, such as the ethereal meeting between the two queens), whilst the sets and costumes are ahistorical (Mary’s Scottish Renaissance court was not composed of caves, and no one was rocking about in denim). The reasons for the clash of style and substance elude me, though given the movie had been mooted since at least 2013 (then as a Scarlett Johansson vehicle), it wouldn’t surprise me if what was eventually filmed was put through the wringer of multiple writers, directors, and designers. The main flaw, however, is nothing to do with Elizabeth but rather Mary; unlike 1998’s “Elizabeth”, “Mary Queen of Scots” forgets to give its eponymous lead any kind of emotional arc (depicting instead a noble, sympathetic woman who endures some horrible things and emerges just as noble and sympathetic). Nevertheless, it is not a bad film – it’s just not the most engaging one in the world. It is worth a watch at least for the central performances of Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, who elevate the sometimes leaden, exposition-heavy material they’re given.
Robbie’s Elizabeth deserves such a high place in anyone’s ranking of the screen queens due to her subtle, nuanced performance, which delivers something not seen in any other adaptation: genuine and consistent insecurity. As Helen Castor has convincingly argued in her biography of Elizabeth I (subtitled ‘A Study in Insecurity’), the queen was plagued throughout her reign by awareness of her tenuous hold on the throne. As Henry VIII had bastardised her (though he reintroduced her to the line of succession despite this), Elizabeth acceded having been the Lady Elizabeth rather than a princess. Further, unlike her half-sister, Mary, she did not instruct parliament to reopen the question of her parents’ marriage and have herself restored to legitimacy. This meant that, throughout her life and reign, Elizabeth ruled as a legally-sanctioned queen but canonically-illegitimate daughter. As she never married or had children, it was always possible that her subjects – particularly her Catholic subjects – might make something of this unconventional reality. Margot Robbie plays up this aspect of Elizabeth: her version of the queen is frightened, unsure of herself, and lacking in pride compared to Mary Queen of Scots (who was legitimately descended from an ancient dynasty). This is a hugely refreshing change from the usual pompous, full-of-herself Elizabeth seen on screen. Although the real queen probably did not reveal her insecurities quite as flagrantly as Robbie’s version, this is nevertheless an Elizabeth we haven’t seen before – and one with a basis in historical fact. The only downside is the makeup; whilst the fake nose works well, the hideous clown makeup slathered on to depict the ageing queen is yet another crude retelling of a myth that just won’t die (though this is hardly the actress’s fault).
Best line: “It is my choice. God would have a woman be a wife and mother.”
2. Helen Mirren in “Elizabeth I” (2005)
2005 was a good year for fans of Queen Elizabeth. Not only did the BBC release its “The Virgin Queen”, but Channel 4 rather outdid it with “Elizabeth I”. This drama focussed on the later life of the queen, from the late 1570s until her death. It thus depicted events such as Elizabeth’s courtship with the Duke of Anjou, her fractured relationship with Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester (played by Jeremy Irons), the failure of the first Spanish Armada, and the rise and fall of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (played by Hugh Dancy). CGI is sparingly used to bring to life the Thames-side palaces and London’s grim skyline, and the interiors and costumes are very good (with even the queen’s makeup being applied with restraint). The dialogue can be a little heavy on exposition (one often wonders why politicians are recounting international relations to one another which would have long been known to them), but the occasional touches of cod Elizabethan add flavour rather than cheese. It is a fine production and worth tracking down.
Helen Mirren is typically excellent as Elizabeth – and there is good reason for why she works so well. Unlike most versions of the queen seen on screen, Mirren is wonderfully flirty (which the real Elizabeth could certainly be), and not shy about bestowing embraces and caresses on her male subjects. Admittedly, this can be a little over-the-top (as when she is romping on her bed with Essex), but, as with Margot Robbie’s version, it shows us a facet of the character we just don’t see depicted in such a way anywhere else. The emotional side of the queen is also given much airtime, and again this has both a basis in reality (Elizabeth was certainly not always shy about letting her feelings be known, especially in personal interactions) and can go a little far (I can’t quite see the real queen running through the halls of her palace screaming for Leicester). Once again, the filmmakers couldn’t resist having her meet her cousin Mary (played by Barbara Flynn) and, once again, sparks fail to fly – probably because no scriptwriter can really do justice to what might have happened had these women met in real life. Nevertheless, on nearly every front (save the script occasionally going too far in laying on the melodrama), this production is a roaring success, and that owes almost everything to the magnificent central performance of the flirtatious, witty, sometimes forlorn, and always mesmerising Helen Mirren. The black contact lenses, which really help turn her into the Ditchley portrait, are an especially neat touch.
Best line: “Excuse me, gentlemen. Our parliament would speak with us and we must be *seen* to listen.”
1. Glenda Jackson in “Elizabeth R” (1971)
Like Keith Michell as Henry VIII, Glenda Jackson reigns supreme as Elizabeth I. Her performance in the 1971 serial (which she reprised, without the remarkably realistic fake nose, in “Mary Queen of Scots” that same year) covers the queen’s life from her teenage years until her death. Each episode thus focuses on a different historical moment, from Elizabeth’s struggles in Mary I’s reign through her matrimonial exploits and Mary Queen of Scots’s downfall, to the Spanish Armada and on to Essex’s fall and her final illness. We are thus privy to an astonishing range of facets to Elizabeth’s personality, from nerviness and fear to powerful imperiousness to cantankerous self-delusion. Paramount throughout is historical accuracy, at least in terms of what was known and believed in the late 1960s – and the scripts are intelligent and beautifully written (as they should be, coming from the pens of such titans as Rosemary Anne-Sisson, of “Upstairs, Downstairs” fame). Even the casting across the board is remarkable, with the actors playing Walsingham and Burghley, for example, looking as though they’d simply stepped out of their portraits.
It's difficult to praise Glenda Jackson’s performance enough. When watching the serial, it’s often easy to forget that one isn’t watching Elizabeth I herself. Jackson manages, throughout the episodes, to show us the queen when she was youthful and when she could be flirtatious (although here she is probably at her least convincing, as even the young and coquettish version of the character retains the thirty-five-year-old actress’s stentorian voice), but she peaks in showing us Elizabeth at her grandest. She is helped by possibly the best and most faithfully reproduced costumes ever shown on screen (and this, astonishingly, all done on a shoestring budget) and by her forbidding, commanding presence. The only real flaw comes in the final episode, when the ghastly whitewash is painted on with a trowel (the effect not capturing anything resembling Elizabethan makeup but, perhaps deliberately, making the elderly queen look like a bizarre freak quite out of touch with the rest of her now-younger court). Whilst I’ve praised other actresses for showing us certain traits the real queen possessed, Glenda Jackson deserves to be celebrated for showing us so many, and without ever losing either the terrifying authority or the human frailty beneath. If the real Elizabeth wasn’t like Glenda Jackson in “Elizabeth R”, then she ought to have been.
Best line: “I want to be young again. I want to have my hopes again. And I want not to feel time ... like a dead child in my womb.”
Bonus: Miranda Richardson in “Blackadder II” (1986)
From the sublime to the delightfully ridiculous! “Blackadder II” marked the beginning of the series as we know it: it wisely scaled down the overly ambitious production values of the first series, redrew the characters (so that Edmund Blackadder became a scheming cynic and Baldrick a turnip), and shifted the focus of the comedy from large set pieces and simpering fools to thwarted ambition and cutting insults (and I say this as someone who likes the first series). Why Blackadder worked so well from its second series onwards was due to its recognition that the real comedy gold lay in making the lead character the smartest in the show, but forcing him to serve and be served by idiots. In “Blackadder II”, Edmund was attended by the buffoonish Percy and the magnificently dopey Baldrick (the loveable Tim McInnerny and the outstanding Tony Robinson), but so too did he have to be at the beck and call of a mad, bad, and definitely dangerous Queen Elizabeth I (or ‘Queenie’).
Miranda Richardson’s Queen Elizabeth is one of the all-time great comic creations – and even just considering the characters present across the four series of Blackadder, that puts her in some fine company. Her genius (and from various documentaries on the show, the idea seems to have originated with Richardson) comes from her interpretation of the queen as a spoilt, petulant, insanely entitled public schoolgirl. Richardson’s Elizabeth can be sweet, simpering, and childish one minute, and throwing a deadly royal tantrum the next. Her relationship with Edmund ranges from her fancying him to her drawing up his death warrant if he fails to give her a suitably shiny present. Richardson, naturally, nails the performance – helped, of course, by the character’s immediate subordinates, the eternally sycophantic Lord Melchett and the delightfully dim Nursie, played by the marvellous Stephen Fry and Patsy Byrne.
Best line: “Oh, Edmund ... I do love it when you get cross. Sometimes I think about having you executed just to see the expression on your face.”
If you enjoy reading about the Tudors, you might like my new novel, “Of Judgement Fallen”: a murder mystery set against the backdrop of Henry VIII’s 1523 ‘Black Parliament’. You can grab it here (or at all good bookshops): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Judgement-Fallen-Anthony-Blanke-Mystery-ebook/dp/B0BPFLWHXH
Henry VIII readies England for war with France. The King’s chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, prepares to open Parliament at Blackfriars. The eyes of the country turn towards London. But all is not well in Wolsey’s household. A visiting critic of the Cardinal is found brutally slain whilst awaiting an audience at Richmond Palace. He will not be the last to die.
Anthony Blanke, trumpeter and groom, is once again called upon to unmask a murderer. Joining forces with Sir Thomas More, he is forced to confront the unpopularity of his master’s rule. As the bodies of the Cardinal’s enemies mount up around him, Anthony finds himself under suspicion. Journeying through the opulence of More’s home, the magnificence of Wolsey’s York Place, and the dank dungeons of London’s gaols, he must discover whether the murderer of the Cardinal’s critics is friend or foe.
With time running out before Parliament sits, Anthony must clear his name and catch the killer before the King’s justice falls blindly upon him.