Staff Publication: Elizabeth I in Film and Television: A Study of the Major Portrayals

Written by Bethany Latham
Review by Sarah Johnson

Bethany Latham’s Elizabeth I in Film and Television takes a colorful promenade through the past hundred years of the silver screen (and the small screen), focusing on major portrayals of that most celebrated of English monarchs: Gloriana herself. While it boasts the scholarly rigor of a well-produced academic monograph, it is also written in a lively, witty style that invites reading from cover to cover.

Latham’s enthusiasm for her subject is infectious. “I’ve always been fascinated by history, by the personalities which populate it,” she says. “The rampant popularity of this queen and her period was one of the main reasons I was interested in writing this book – to find out why she and her times hold such fascination for modern audiences.”

The book’s seven chapters analyze these evolving views of Queen Elizabeth. Eighteen offerings are presented, covering the silent film era, big-budget historicals from Hollywood’s Golden Age, the rise of the TV miniseries, Elizabethan bit parts (eg, Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love), and modern blockbusters with Cate Blanchett and her contemporaries. For each, Latham discusses the historical context – for both the making of the film and the era depicted on screen – as well as the actors’ influences and techniques, the plot, major themes, critical reception, and much more.

In entertaining detail, Latham explains how the films bring different aspects of the Virgin Queen’s life and character to the forefront: for example, her coming of age in Young Bess, her relationship with her royal cousin in Mary, Queen of Scots, and her role in the Spanish Armada’s defeat in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. When they diverge from historical fact – as we know, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary never met in real life – this is examined as well, to determine what filmmakers have hoped to accomplish by their modifications of history.

As part of the research process, Latham watched each production at least three times. While she gained added elucidation for some works on repeated viewings, Sarah Bernhardt’s early silent film in particular, others suffered from close scrutiny. For example: “Repeated viewings of Kapur’s Elizabeth highlighted just how flawed the plotting could be,” she says. “Things that made cursory sense in the first brief flyby, when viewed critically a second or third time … didn’t so much, such as [Robert] Dudley’s actual role in the (completely fabricated) conspiracy.”

One highlight of the book is seeing how each actress – or actor, in the case of Quentin Crisp in 1992’s cross-dressing Orlando – interprets the character. When younger, Latham was awed by Bette Davis in the starring role, but her opinion has changed. “[Davis] was so comically flamboyant in her portrayals; all that melodrama and pageantry and textile porn in brilliant Technicolor made quite an impression,” she remembers. “But when I watched them again for this book, it was impressed upon me how one-dimensional they truly were.

“I’ve always admired Glenda Jackson’s portrayal, and that hasn’t changed. But I had never seen the Flora Robson films before this book, and once I did, it was a revelation. She manages the perfect combination of gravitas, temper, and charm. Robson was accomplished enough as an actress to subvert her personality so that it never peeks through the Elizabeth façade – something none of these other actresses manage, even Jackson.”

With this book as their guide to screen queen Elizabeths, film and history buffs will gain substantial familiarity with each work, and each imagined version of the historical woman. If you’re among this group, chances are you’ll be anxious to view these creative interpretations of Tudor times for yourself.