As a fan of the 1971 version of Elizabeth R (available as a 4-disc set), I watched the 2005 version of Elizabeth I starring Helen Mirren with interest.
Elizabeth I begins when the queen has already ruled for 20 years, and so she’s in her late 40s. In spite of the fact she’s never been married, her ministers still swear she can bear children and so eagerly engage in yet more marriage plans.
Elizabeth I covers her relationship with the Earl of Leicester (Jeremy Irons), and also her problematic relationship with Leicester’s step son the Earl of Essex (Hugh Dancy), Mary Queen of Scots (Barbara Flynn) and the Spanish Armada. This is a lavish spectacle, and when it comes to props and sets, it beats Elizabeth R hands down.
However, that said, Elizabeth I falls down in its portrayal of its subject. 21st century sensibilities are imposed onto Elizabeth, and she is seen as a weak, vulnerable woman. Yes, we all know that Elizabeth had a soft spot for pretty young men, but here the film goes overboard.
Elizabeth R shows Elizabeth (Glenda Jackson) as a young woman before taking the throne, and so we get a sense of some of her deep-seated insecurities when it comes to the subject of legitimacy. This is absent from the updated examination of Elizabeth’s life, and instead we see her falling for pretty boy Essex while there’s very little regarding Elizabeth’s role as a monarch.
Compare the Armada scene in both films. In Elizabeth R, she remains on her horse, making her big patriotic speech to the poor bastards who are about to go out and die for her. In Elizabeth I, she gets off the horse, and prances around the soldiers in what seems to be an effort to make a mass appeal. In Elizabeth R, a returning soldier details how the Spanish Armada is successfully routed, but this depth of analysis is entirely absent in Elizabeth I. Instead we just see a ship returning, and everyone cheering. The details of the victory are absent.
Another criticism of Elizabeth I is the inclusion of several gruesome scenes. We see heads close up chopped off at the neck, and several HORRIBLE hung, drawn and quarter scenes. I really didn’t need to see these. And believe me when I say they were gruesome.
So if you want to watch a film about Elizabeth, then my money is on the 1971 miniseries starring Glenda Jackson. It gives the viewer a much fuller picture of Elizabeth’s life, and I think it’s essential to examine her youth if you want to understand some of the decisions she made later.