All hail Elizabeth-the-teen, pre-queen. Just in time for the Jubilee of her namesake Elizabeth II, England’s longest reigning monarch, Starz and creator Anya Reiss (“EastEnders”) gaze back to another, lesser-known micro-slice of Tudor history in “Becoming Elizabeth.” The series asks: what was happening to the wicked smart, red-haired “virgin” queen-to-be in the tumultuous months following the death of her father, Henry VIII, in 1547 — and over a decade after Pops beheaded her unpopular mother Anne Boleyn?
The word orphan doesn’t quite describe the politically fraught and emotionally unstable situation in which the vulnerable 14-year-old (Alicia von Rittberg) finds herself. Of Henry’s three legitimate children, the third in line for the royal scepter enters a game of thrones in earnest with her Anglican younger half-brother Edward (Oliver Zetterstrom) and Catholic older half-sister “Bloody” Mary (Romola Garai).
Meanwhile, Henry’s widowed sixth wife, Catherine Parr (Jessica Raine) maneuvers to take her young stepdaughter into her household, while Cat continues to bed, and then secretly wed, her long-time lover and baby daddy, Sir Thomas Seymour (Thomas Cullen). That he was the brother of Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour, gives a clue into what a genetic knot of family intrigue this all was – and the succession mayhem that had the court in a spin.
Ever ambitious, Seymour, on the cusp of forty, then overreaches mightily: flirting with the young heir right under his wife’s roof at London’s Chelsea Manor. Here we enter the iffy territory of historical fiction – how far did Seymour go to get a leg over on the powerful yet impressionable heir to the throne? In this version, pretty far.
With “Becoming Elizabeth,” Starz builds on its strong history of original female-driven historical dramas, starting with “The White Queen,” “The White Princess” (which starred a breakout Jodie Comer pre-“Killing Eve” in the title role, well worth the watch) and “The Spanish Princess.” These intelligent, character-driven series drew as their source material the meticulously researched novels of Philippa Gregory – and set a high bar.
While not standing on the shoulders of Gregory’s top-notch fiction, “Becoming Elizabeth” has its charms. Chief among them is Garai as Mary. She delivers a strong and subtle performance as the second in line to the throne who becomes a focal point for European and domestic Catholics desperate to restore the power of the Pope in England. A perfectly cast Zetterstrom plays King Edward VI with a Joffrey menace, a child king who embraces his inner tyrant and religious fanaticism. And then there’s German actress Rittberg in the title role – if she doesn’t have the range and versatility of a Comer, she does give this adolescent royal a Mia Wasikowska, early Gwyneth Paltrow romanticism.
It seems to me that part of what forged the future queen responsible for Britain’s Golden Age – and numerous executions — involves a lot more PTSD than is evident here. I’m not asking for the “Euphoria” sex and self-harm version. However, her real-life experience equaled anything that pushed Hamlet to the edge of suicide, to be or not to be. There’s too much glossy gloss here. It’s not just that Elizabeth’s mother was “a slut” (their words) bringing shame on the daughter, but that her father killed Anne Boleyn with full pomp and circumstance. Elizabeth has been both spectator and victim in her father’s erratic and extended domestic violence within the court. How does that make her feel, asks the latent psychologist in me.
It’s that romanticism in the shadow of the executioner’s axe that gives the series its squidgy tone. There’s no avoiding that this lesser-known episode in Tudor history revolves around the grooming of a vulnerable 15-year-old ignorant of her personal power by an ambitious middle-aged man 25 years her senior. Full stop. Mustache twirls. And the heir’s pregnant step-mother’s husband to boot!
While the series renders the intimacy between Seymour and Elizabeth relatively discreetly in a way that allows for plausible deniability, the imbalanced relationship is creepy to modern eyes attuned to abuse’s many variations. Historical fiction is always impacted and refracted through a modern lens and, by the end, this one had me yearning to call social services.
“Becoming Elizabeth” debuts on Starz on June 12.