Starz’s ‘Becoming Elizabeth’: TV Review

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It’s not that Elizabeth Tudor (Alicia von Rittberg) can’t see the board. “It’s a great game of keep or kill to them all,” she remarks with no small amount of bitterness when she’s sent without say to live with Catherine Parr (Jessica Raine), widow of her father King Henry VIII. At the point we meet her in Starz’s Becoming Elizabeth, however, she’s not yet learned to play the game for herself.

Her evolution from pawn to key player comprises the narrative spine of the series, and it’s no spoiler to acknowledge here that she’ll eventually go on to win the whole thing, ruling over England for nearly half a century. But creator Anya Reiss brings to Elizabeth I’s saga an intimate perspective that prioritizes personal experience over the epic sweep of history. The result is a series that neither sexes up the Tudor era (a la The Tudors) nor freezes it under museum glass (a la Anne Boleyn), but instead finds a way to render it nearly as dynamic and complicated as the present.

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Becoming Elizabeth opens by highlighting not the innate power of Elizabeth’s standing as a daughter of the late king, but the unbearable vulnerability. In the first minutes of the premiere, 14-year-old Elizabeth, her older half-sister Mary (Romola Garai) and their younger half-brother Edward (Oliver Zetterström) are rounded up in the dead of night without explanation, the door to the room barred behind them. “Why did you bring us all here? What do you mean to do to us?” they plead. “Is this it?”

It isn’t: They haven’t been brought here to be imprisoned or executed, but to be informed that their father has died and that 9-year-old Edward will take his place as king. But their initial panic speaks to the siblings’ painful awareness of the precariousness of their positions. They’re well aware they might be killed at any time simply for who they were born to be.

It also speaks to Becoming Elizabeth‘s insistence on living in these moments as they were experienced by the people within them, rather than looking back at them with the clarity of hindsight. (Though even this series can’t resist some ham-fisted irony from time to time: In one instance, Catherine Parr scoffs of the young king, “What will he do, execute us?” as if half the characters on this show aren’t destined to lose their heads, or as if the audience might have forgotten that his predecessor had two of his wives beheaded.) All three will get their turn at the throne in time, but no one could have known that then — and the series chooses to call attention not to their confirmed fates, but to the fear and uncertainty the characters felt fumbling their way through the dark surrounded by armed guards.

Justin Chadwick, who directed the first three episodes (of four sent to critics, and of eight total for the season), complements Reiss’ approach with a handheld camera that frequently gets up close and personal with the cast. The actors, in turn, give as good as they get with layered performances that capture the tension between what the characters are feeling, what they’re supposed to be feeling and what they’re hiding.

Meanwhile, the grandeur of their surroundings passes without much comment. The first episode features a major battle, complete with brutal displays of stunt swordsmanship across a misty landscape. But the conflicts Becoming Elizabeth is most interested in are the bloodless ones that occur in cloistered meetings and private conversations, motivated by petty grudges or individual desires.

So the intensifying frictions between the zealously Protestant Edward VI, the equally zealously Catholic Mary and stuck-in-the-middle Elizabeth are portrayed with an eye toward the blurry lines between their bond as siblings and their unavoidable rivalry as royals. When Elizabeth tries to confide in her sister during a moment of closeness, Mary stops her before she can spill her secrets. “Don’t hand me the power to destroy you and then ask me not to use it,” she warns. The battle of wills between two noble brothers, Catherine’s new husband Thomas Seymour (Tom Cullen) and Edward VI’s top advisor Edward Seymour (John Heffernan) play out in hostile arguments at royal council meetings, but also informs Thomas’ wildly inappropriate flirtation with Elizabeth — who, as a sheltered girl who’s never caught the attentions of such a charismatic man before, finds him difficult to resist.

Collectively, the intersecting storylines make the individual episodes so dense they often feel longer than their one-hour runtimes. Thankfully, Reiss is careful in her selections of scenes, so the larger picture moves forward at a brisk pace even when individual scenes linger on, for example, a particularly disgusting (but fascinating) Renaissance-era method for detecting pregnancies. The Elizabeth who began the series complaining that, as a princess, she’s never gotten what she wants, is by the middle of the season making big public moves of her own in court and declaring that the naïve girl she once was “is dead.”

But not, we can hope, completely. The purest expression of Elizabeth’s arc comes in the second episode, when she snaps at a well-meaning friend, Robert Dudley (Jamie Blackley), who tries to talk her out of a dangerous situation while hunting. “I have the right to make my own reckless, unchallenged, uninterrupted, foolish and selfish decisions,” she yells at him. “I claim that right.” By allowing Elizabeth to be a teenager first, with all the inner turmoil, impetuous choices and foolish ideas that entails, Becoming Elizabeth grants the future monarch some of the agency that she claims to have been denied — and that the inevitability of history too often robs of its most influential figures. In the process, it turns a centuries-old tale into something both timeless and fresh.

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