‘Becoming Elizabeth’ review: Engaging look at a future queen

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WHAT IS IT ABOUT After Henry VIII died in 1547, Edward VI (Oliver Zetterström) – who was nine years old – was crowned the new King of England. Her sister, Mary (Ramola Garai), is Catholic, therefore persona non grata, while her other sister, Elizabeth Tudor (German actress Alicia von Rittberg), has moved into the castle of her stepmother, Catherine Parr (Jessica Raine) . Parr’s secret lover is Thomas Seymour (Tom Cullen) – whom Elizabeth has an instant crush on – while Thomas’ brother, Edward Seymour (John Heffernan) goes by the name “Lord Protector”. This means that Edward makes most of the new king’s decisions because he is still a child, and also makes him the most powerful person in England. Thomas despises him for the power grab and a fight for the future of the crown ensues.

As the title suggests, this eight part is about “becoming” as opposed to being. Elizabeth I will not be crowned until 1558, when she is 25 years old.

MY SAID ‘Becoming Elizabeth’ was created by English playwright Anya Reiss, in her thirties, who has earned a considerable reputation as a precocious director in her twenties adapting plays by Chekhov for the London scene. With Chekhov, think about family feuds and unrequited love in the face of the tectonic changes taking place in Russian society at the end of the 19th century. With Reiss’ “Elizabeth,” think much the same, with one obvious difference. The king is dead, and not just any king, but the one who married six wives, sent five, and divided English society – just as brutally – over loyalty to the papacy. Those who paid attention in high school history class will know how it all ends up. A young, hormonal and introspective Elizabeth around 1547 certainly does not.

In “Becoming Elizabeth”, she indeed becomes: vigilant and intelligent, but also loving and frustrated, she is like any teenager who just wants to get out of the house (here, the castle), or away from her parents (here , her mother-in-law.) If she were a child of the 20th or 21st century, she would demand the keys to the car (here, the reins of a horse).

Meanwhile, she’s a pawn in a power game she doesn’t fully understand, and maybe couldn’t. It’s brother against brother (whom she has a crush on) and a stepmother who takes a keen interest in the outcome of the sibling battle. Elizabeth seems to be the only one in the castle mourning her recently deceased father – a wonder, considering he had her mother beheaded a few years prior. In the midst of this grief, another teenage girl, Lady Jane Gray (Bella Ramsey), moves into the castle and immediately establishes herself as a rival to Elizabeth. (Alas, poor Lady Jane is also a pawn, and will lose his head pretty early too.)

What’s so good about Reiss’ “Elizabeth” is the overwhelming feeling that no one knows anything and certainly doesn’t know what’s next. This is not the story of textbook television, but of human affairs on a small scale, or at least at eye level. We may not recognize historical figures from scene to scene (keep your Wikipedia handy), but we do recognize those emotions and family dynamics.

All of this will be instantly recognizable to fans of Starz’s Philippa Gregory adaptations – “The White Princess”, “The White Queen” and “The Spanish Princess” – while “Becoming Elizabeth” is effectively the next chapter in the series. But they will feel something different here too. Dark, moody, cerebral (and Chekhovian), at least like these other series, it is also irresistible.

LOWER RESULT Clever, engaging and lots of moving parts (so do some homework first).

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