Helen Mirren brilliant as queen imprisoned by her own power

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“Virgo intacta,” the physician whispers to lords assembled informally but purposefully, having just told his queen, more tactfully, “All is as it should be, your majesty.” She nods impassively from her bed, surrounded by ladies in waiting.

Thus begins HBO’s “Elizabeth I,” 20 years into her reign, summing up the English queen’s status as a personage of rare power – especially for a woman of her time – and as a prisoner to her court, her duty and her own sense of honor. At this juncture in her life and reign, there still seems a chance that she can marry at age 46, conceive an heir and prevent civil war following her death.

Helen Mirren plays the Virgin Queen in a brilliant, textured performance that, appropriately, might have been sketched by her great Elizabethan Bard, if he happened to write for cable television. Lines in the script occasionally echo Shakespeare.

Directed by Tom Hooper from novelist Nigel Williams’ script, “Elizabeth” (8 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Monday, April 24) neatly sums up the ceaseless turmoil of her life (1533-1603): inescapable responsibility, a treadmill of crises, the near impossibility of totally trusting anyone, never an instant of real privacy, and the fate of not only her nation but her people on her conscience.

All of these political problems play out in this film against her relationships with two men presented as great loves of her life, her longtime friend the Earl of Leicester and the young Earl of Essex. Leicester (Jeremy Irons) dominates Part 1, and Essex (Hugh Dancy) occupies Part 2. Each is a passionate attachment, but the film suggests nothing to contradict the deeply held supposition that she died intacta.

Hooper and Williams do a fine job of compressing 24 years into three hours and 27 minutes. It naturally creates the impression that there were no calm or peaceful times, that it was all tension, intrigue and dangers from France, Spain, Scotland and around her own council table. It’s not an unreasonable impression.

Elizabeth is rightly regarded as one of history’s greatest monarchs, and the film gives a reasonable impression that she was indeed intuitively wise as well as coldly calculating.

But she was almost girlish in love, being downright silly at times in her affections for both men, especially Essex – who is considerably less morally attractive than Errol Flynn was in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (1939). Essex was a pretty lad who captivated a woman in her late 60s and got both too greedy and too arrogant toward the queen’s other power brokers. Dancy does a good job of showing him as a cutie pie and a swaggering schemer who wanted the usual – too much too soon.

Irons has his best role in years as a near-lover who also betrays Elizabeth sexually but is too good a friend, companion and adviser to be kept away permanently. Irons and Mirren have a fine rapport as people who have drawn the line and know better than to cross it.

Mirren must be recognized as one of the great Elizabeths, the equal of Bette Davis in “Elizabeth and Essex” and “The Virgin Queen” (1955). She is in the film from beginning to end. Hooper films many scenes in long takes, sometimes in intricate traveling shots, giving Mirren and others the chance to give sustained performances. Mirren is riveting as Elizabeth the powerful, the vulnerable, the giddy, the foolish, the earnest and the eloquent.

Williams also gives Essex a poetic eloquence he didn’t have. After his beheading, a poem is sent to Elizabeth over his signature. The real writer was one Chidiock Tichborne, penned the night before he was beheaded at age 24.

But in sum, “Elizabeth” is a grand production, cleverly written and splendidly acted.

Ted Mahar is a staff writer for The Oregonian of Portland, Ore. He can be contacted at tedmahar@news.oregonian.com.

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