Elizabeth I in the Movies

Anne Marie Duff as Elizabeth I

This article has been inspired by Mark Glancy’s article “Three Films about Queen Elizabeth I” in the August 2010 edition of BBC History Magazine. In his article, Glancy, who teaches film history at Queen Mary University of London, picks three films about our favourite Tudor monarch and looks at the storyline, the portrayal of Elizabeth and also the movie’s historical accuracy. I found it an interesting article because I’ve actually only see the third film he mentions.

Here are the movies and a precis of Glancy’s thoughts:-

  • Fire Over England starring Flora Robson (1937) – Glancy talks of this film, produced by German Jew, Erich Pommer, drawing parallels between Spain under Philip II and Germany under Hitler. Glancy feels that Robson’s portrayal of Elizabeth “as a courageous, compassionate monarch, but also as a lonely and insecure woman” was “the most convincing and sympathetic portrait until Cate Blanchett surpassed it 60 years later.” I obviously cannot comment on Robson’s portrayal as I haven’t seen the film, but I can’t say that Blanchett is my first choice for Elizabeth.
    As far as accuracy is concerned, Glancy gives it 6/10 and points out that this movie was actually based on a novel by A E W Mason and so does have “fanciful diversions into romance and espionage”.
  • The Virgin Queen starring Bette Davis (1955) – Another one that I haven’t seen but Glancy describes it as being focused on court gossip and scandal and the main storyline being Elizabeth’s obsession with Sir Walter Ralegh and her jealousy over his secret marriage to one of her ladies, Elizabeth Throckmorton. Davis plays an Elizabeth who, in her old age, “is a twisted and lonely spinster, who is riddled with jealousy and bitterness… a lovesick, vain and neurotic woman driven by emotions rather than intellect” and who has “a Cockney accent, a limp and the manners of a sailor”! Hmm… I’m not sure I’ll be rushing out and buying this film!
    This movie only gets 4/10 for accuracy from Glancy who writes that the basic storyline, the story of Ralegh and Throckmorton, is true but that the timescale is too condensed and the happy ending, which sees Ralegh happily sailing away to the New World, is pure fiction.

  • Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett (1998) – This modern interpretation of Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne was directed by Shekhar Kapur and written by Michael Hirst of “The Tudors” fame. The controversial aspect of this movie, as Glancy points out, is Elizabeth’s sexual relationship with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and the idea that Elizabeth’s image as the “Virgin Queen” was “a mask that Elizabeth assumed as a means of garnering the unblemished virtue of the Virgin Mary”. The ending sees Elizabeth having her long hair cut off, painting her face white and declaring that she has “become” a virgin. I loved the drama of this, but it’s not how I see Elizabeth and I don’t believe that she suddenly became the Virgin Queen overnight.In terms of accuracy, Glancy gives this movie 5/10 and points out that there is no evidence, as we know, of Elizabeth and Dudley actually consummating their relationship, and they didn’t ‘break up’ but were close until Dudley’s death in 1588. Other inaccuracies pointed out by Glancy include the murder of Mary of Guise (she wasn’t murdered!) and Elizabeth’s relationship with William Cecil, who, in reality, served Elizabeth for over 40 years and never retired – he died in 1598. I also didn’t like the portrayal of Kat Ashley who, in the film, was a similar age to Elizabeth, yet, in real life, was a mother figure to her and was around 30 years older than her. There are so many inaccuracies, but it is a colourful drama and I can’t help but think of Blanchett when I imagine the young Elizabeth.

Other Elizabeth I Movies

Other films based on Elizabeth I include:-

    • The Virgin Queen starring Anne Marie Duff (2005) – I loved this BBC dramatisation of Elizabeth I’s life as I felt that the production team and writer had researched it well and Duff made a believable Elizabeth. The scenes I found particularly moving were the ones when Essex burst into Elizabeth’s chamber and saw her as the old, haggard woman she really was without her wig and make-up, and the scene when Elizabeth dies and they remove her ring and find Anne Boleyn’s portrait inside. I loved that the locket ring was mentioned.

  • Elizabeth I, a series starring Helen Mirren  (2005) – Helen Mirren won an Emmy and Golden Globe for her portrayal of Elizabeth I in this series co-starring Jeremy Irons as Robert Dudley, and this is my favourite Elizabeth I dramatization. It focuses on the last 25 years of Elizabeth I’s life and is brilliant for historical accuracy, even David Starkey said: “I think, without any doubt, that this is the best film overall, that’s been made on Elizabeth. I think it gets nearer to Elizabeth’s humanity, it gets nearer to her relationship with her courtiers, it gives a sense of the visual world, it gives a sense of something of the taste, the texture, the touch, and above all, the words.” Director Tom Hooper said: “We find that historical detail is so much more interesting than anything we can invent nowadays”, yes, finally someone agrees that the true story is interesting enough to leave well alone!
  • Elizabeth: The Golden Age starring Cate Blanchett (2007) – This sequel to Kapur’s “Elizabeth” is just as colourful and dramatic and the storyline includes the fall of Mary Queen of Scots and the threat of the Spanish Armada. Two things which annoy me in this film are Samantha Morton’s (Mary Queen of Scots) Scottish accent, surely she would have had a French accent seeing as she grew up in France, and Elizabeth’s eternal youth, with her looking around 30 when she addresses the troops at Tilbury in 1588 – Elizabeth was born in 1533! This film is not a patch on the Anne Marie Duff and Helen Mirren productions.
  • Young Bess starring Jean Simmons (1953) – Glancy mentions this in his article and describes it as “a more wholesome portrait of Elizabeth’s youth”. I haven’t seen this movie but it is based on the novel by Margaret Irwin and one website describes it as playing “it a little loose with the facts” in that it has the young Elizabeth sacrificing her feelings for Thomas Seymour by making him marry her beloved stepmother, Catherine Parr, yet in reality Elizabeth met Seymour at Catherine’s house, when the couple were married in 1547.
  • Elizabeth R starring Glenda Jackson (1971) – Many people can’t help but think of Glenda Jackson when they visualise Elizabeth I. Jackson was outstanding in the role and it is said that she agreed to take on the role on the basis that the series would be as historically accurate as possible.
  • Blackadder Series 2 starring Miranda Richardson as Queenie (1985) – A BBC comedy series with Series 2 based in Elizabethan England. OK, I know this is comedy but Miranda Richardson was brilliant as Queenie. Take the following speech for example:-
    Melchett: Grey, I suspect Majesty.
    Queenie: I think you’ll find it was orange Lord Melchett.
    Melchett: Grey is more usual mam.
    Queenie: Who’s queen ?
    Melchett: As you say Majesty, there were these magnificent orange
    elephants which were coming…..

Other actress who have played Elizabeth I include Judi Dench in the 1998 “Shakespeare in Love” and Sarah Bernhardt in the 1911 “The Loves of Queen Elizabeth”. Which is your favourite Elizabeth I movie or series and who is your favourite Elizabeth actress?

P.S. Elizabeth Files visitor, Linda, had the idea that I should put all the videos that I have used in posts onto an Elizabeth video/movie page so I will be doing that shortly. Thanks, Linda!

Notes and Sources

  • “Three Films about Queen Elizabeth I” by Mark Glancy, BBC History Magazine, August 2010
  • TCM article on Young Bess
  • YouTube

15 thoughts on “Elizabeth I in the Movies

  1. OOOOOO…love this topic to death and we’ve touched on it a bit on the Forum. Flora Robson may be my favorite Elizabeth and I’ve seen her performances in both ‘Fire Over England’ (with real life lovers Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh) and ‘The Sea Hawk’ (Errol Flynn). I’d say get them both if you can, especially ‘The Sea Hawk’ in which Elizabeth is the only woman that Flynn’s dashing captain can talk to without stumbling over his words. And you can add Cate Blanchett, Glenda Jackson and Helen Mirren to my list as well. One of the treats of ‘Young Bess’ is also getting to see Charles Laughton reprise his Henry VIII but the movie is a mess when it comes to the facts. And I saw ‘The Virgin Queen’ many years ago; like ‘Elizabeth and Essex’ I admire Bette Davis as an actress (always have) but to this day I’m not sure about her Elizabeth. The ONLY scene I still remember from ‘The Virgin Queen’ is her ripping off a wig and showing her aged, thin hair. I’m not sure what that says when THIS is the only scene I remember, but there you go.

  2. I believe Cate Blanchett captured the essence of Elizabeth as no one else has, but the historical inaccuracies/liberties taken were maddening. They turned Robert Dudley into a spineless ninny, wrote him completely out of Elizabeth’s life from the age of 29 or 30 onward, and invented a full-fledged sexual relationship between the two.

    Elizabeth and Dudley never consummated their relationship, as passionate and lifelong as it was (which is why — when he returned from the Netherlands when both he and Elizabeth were in their late 40s, to find that she was quite smitten with her French suitor, the Duc D’Anjou — he asked publicly and heatedly, “Are you still a virgin??!”). Robert Dudley, of all people, would have known the answer to that question. And he’s the only man Elizabeth would have surrendered to sexually.


  3. Oh, I haven’t seen all of these but I do LOVE Helen Mirren and Glenda Jackson. And I also love Catherine Blanchette but think Jackson’s Elizabeth is really more spot on. I guess my favorite Dudley is Jeremy Irons–so dear and so devoted. I just was heart-broken when he died. I will try to get the ones I have not yet seen and yes, great idea to post some snippets. Thanks for another great one, Claire!! I’m working on Elizabeth now–reading and reading and reading. Can’t wait to get started actually writing!

  4. Hi Claire

    Great article. i love Anne Marie-Duff’s portrayal of Elizabeth in the VIrgin Queen and you can’t beat Glenda Jackson in Elizabeth R. I also liked Helen Mirren’s version

    Always thought there were some inaccuracies in the Cate Blanchette films, though she does make a great young Elizabeth

  5. I absolutely LOVE Miranda Richardson as Queenie! She is absolutely brilliant!

    I find it so sad that Cate Blanchette was given such a sappy script. I really do think she could have surpassed Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth Tudor if she had been given a good script. We can see it in her role as Galadriel.


  6. Hi!

    My favourite Elizabeth actress is Cate Blanchett. I wish the film had been more historical accurate and I find the ending a bit to sad. But It’s still enjoyable.
    About the serie with Anne Marie Duff, I don’t really know what I think of it. I don’t like the actors playing Wiliam Cecil and Robert Dudley. And in comparison to Cate Blachett, Anne Marie Duff hasn’t a chance.
    After reading all rewievs about “Elizabeth R”, and seeing clips on YouTube, I do want to see it. I also hope someone will make a film based on Alison Weir’s novel “the Lady Elizabeth”. Even if it’s not historical accurate, I truly enjoyed it

    I also have a question, maybe not related to Elizabeth-movies, but I hope someone can help me. I wonder if anyone has seen “the Shadow of the Tower”, also a BBC production from the seventies? Do you know if it is good or if it has got the same good rewievs as The six wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R?

    Thanks for all your work with both the ElizabethFiles, but especially with the AnneBoleynFiles!

  7. The Blanchette films are fun to watch in general, but painful to think about because of the glaring inaccuracies. I actually found Golden Age better than Elizabeth. When we think of how terrifying it was for the English to know the Armada was coming, we as modern people tend to go ‘yeah, and …’ or think of it academically. I liked GA because it presented the menace that the Armada represented in a stunningly visual way. When your skin crawled at seeing the horizon filled with an invasion force, you got a good taste of what Elizabethans were feeling. Also, the scene in the Presence Chamber where we first meet Raleigh and the Spanish Ambassador felt good: it might not have been 100% accurate but it had the right flavor. I especially liked the looks and glances back and forth between Elizabeth and Walsingham – again a bit modern but representing the relationship she had with a choice few of her advisors.

  8. This really is a hard choice, but I really love Helen Mirren (however this may be because I have always liked Jeremy Irons in any role and I love the interaction between them) and I think Cate Blanchette did a great job with the material she had to work with – too bad the scripts in both movies weren’t better. I remember seeing Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth in the seventies and was amazed with how she made the character seem to come to life.

  9. Claire,

    I know the topic is Elizabeth I in films, but to me, Glenda Jackson in the TV series “Elizabeth R” has all other actresses that played Elizabeth whether in movies or TV,beat hands down. She was absolute perfection in the role and she so deserved the award she received. What do you think of Glenda in the role?

    Linda Walsh

  10. I don’t really have any one personal favorite. I have always thought that each actress that portrays Elizabeth does so in her own way . Elizabeth I was an extraordinary woman so I think it’s impossible for any one person to play her and get her 100% right.

    I have had this fantasy since I saw the Bob Dillon movie (which has Cate in it) If I were to make a movie on Elizabeth this is how I would cast it. I would get Cate Blanchett to play the early years of her life, Helen Mirren to play the Mary Queen Of Scots/ Armada years, and then get Glenda Jackson out of retirement to play her in old age. This movie would totally rock. I have always thought these three women were able to portray the underlying ” iron fist in the velvet glove ” that Elizabeth really was when she needed to be.

  11. I have adored the Blanchett portrayal above all since I was a young child. Norfolk’s mistress, Lettice Howard, played by Amanda Ryan, is how I used to imagine Anne Boleyn. Funny because she has a slight resemblance to Natalie Dormer. Always fun for me to think about.

  12. It is really difficult to choose a favorite portrayal of Elizabeth. The ones I like are all for different reasons. You are totally right about Glenda Jackson being the face that comes to mind because she embodied Elizabeth so totally for me. I feel like I am watching a biogrraphy when I see it. Helen Mirren was wonderful I think in conveying the feelings Elizabeth would have felt when she was in her older years. The fact that she is such a beautiful actress also helps the audience appreciate Dudley’s attraction to her far beyond her youthful days. Finally, Ann Marie Duff did a wonderful job of playing the young Elizabeth. She, like Ann Boleyn, is not a contemporary beauty but is witty, intelligent, driven yet not immune to the feelings of young love. The way they aged her was great too because they showed the lengths she had to go to in order to keep the “eternal youth” mythos. The fact they acknowleged the ring she wore at the end was a clincher for me because it was a surprise glimpse into the heart of a woman that we think we know by the end.

  13. Hello!

    My favorite actress portraying Queen Elizabeth I is Cate Blanchett. I do agree that both movies (“Elizabeth I”, and “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”) are not completely historically accurate, but I am sure, if the movies had a better script, Blanchet would’ve pulled it off! She’s excellent! My favorite movie most definitely is “The Virgin Queen”, the most historical accurate movie I have seen to date.

  14. I was reading on another site that Joely Richardson is going to be playing Elizabeth before she was Queen. Her mother Vanessa will play Elizabeth in her later years. If this is true it is rather odd casting for although Joely looks fantastic she is forty seven and Elizabeth became Queen at twentyfive. Has anyone else heard anything about this ?

  15. Ive seen most of these. Historically, the Glenda Jackson one is, of course, most accurate and costumes, acting are superb. However, the The Virgin Queen starring Anne Marie Duff (2005) has an earthy realiness, wonderful and different chorus music which instantly transport you to that time and space AND this one has extreme replay value for me that I do not find in the other ones. I find its more realism based in those moments of play and danger. Its not over lofty and is not grandiose. Plus the tooth extraction scene is a riot. NOTE: get the DVD . I found out NETFLIX streaming is cutting out scenes and editing films!!!! Shame on them!!!!

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