‘Becoming Elizabeth’ Review: A Bold New Era for Starz’s Tudor Dramas


Is there really anything more TV can say about the Tudors? The 16th century British royals have inspired elegant installments of Masterpiece Theatre, a tawdry Showtime soap, and all sorts of adaptations of Philippa Gregory’s best-selling, female-centric historical novels. For nearly a decade, Gregory’s books have served as the backbone of Starz’s historical romance slate: The White Queen, The White Princess, and two seasons of The Spanish Princess traced the line of succession from Elizabeth Woodville’s reign at the height of the War of the Roses to Catherine Aragon’s marriage to a young Henry VIII.

Now Starz is shifting gears, but not order of succession, with Becoming Elizabeth. The tagline for the series is “The Queen You Know. The Girl You Don’t.” Hardcore Tudor nuts, like yours truly, may disagree with the sentiment because we like to think we already know it all. Nevertheless, Starz’s latest female-focused costume drama does excel at showing audiences that the formidable Queen Elizabeth was not the only extraordinary woman vying for power. The best part of Becoming Elizabeth might not be what it tells us about the legendary ruler, but how it lets the complex women in her orbit shine.

Becoming Elizabeth was created by playwright and TV writer Anya Reiss. The series therefore marks a major stylistic break from the likes of showrunner Emma Frost‘s past Philippa Gregory adaptations. While those earlier series built their complex court dramas around core romances, Becoming Elizabeth’s early Season 1 episodes orbit around the abusive relationship between the underage Elizabeth (Alicia von Rittberg) and her older, charming guardian Thomas Seymour (Tom Cullen). The headstrong and intelligent Elizabeth might think she’s embarking on a consensual flirtation, but that’s because she is still too young and sheltered to see the larger picture. It’s a disturbing seduction to watch, not least because Thomas Seymour had infamously eloped with Elizabeth’s stepmother, the last wife of Henry VIII, Catherine Parr (Jessica Raine). In the power vacuum of Henry’s death, Thomas’s intentions seem suspicious, to say the least.

Mary Tudor (Romola Garai) embracing Elizabeth (Alicia von Rittberg) in Becoming Elizabeth
Photo: Starz

Even though Becoming Elizabeth technically follows The White Queen, White Princess, and Spanish Princess in neat generational succession, it’s hard to mistake Reiss’s approach to Tudor history for Frost’s. Those past shows presented the English court as a place of opulence, the shows’ heroines were medieval girlbosses using their wits and wiles to narrowly survive a grim fate. Becoming Elizabeth turns this same setting into a horror movie. The show takes advantage of low ceilings and shadow, putting the characters in the dark, both figuratively and literally. Elizabeth and the other women don’t strut through the court, but seem constantly cornered.

As mentioned, Elizabeth isn’t the only character trying to navigate this dangerous court. Catherine Parr is refreshingly depicted as she was, a savvy politician and brilliant woman. Her Achilles’ heel is her love for the unpredictable Thomas Seymour, whom she hastily marries. This puts her at odds with other players in court, and even her beloved stepdaughter Elizabeth.

Likewise, Elizabeth’s older half-sister Mary Tudor (Romola Garai) is gifted a far more nuanced (and historically accurate) portrait than other adaptations of Elizabeth’s life have granted. Mary cares about her sister, but understands that any sign of weakness — even the love of a sibling — could lead her to her own death. Mary is torn in three directions: between loyalties to her family, faith in the Catholic church, and her own political ambitions. It’s a refreshing take on a character usually only shown at the end of her disastrous reign, dying of probable uterine cancer and saddled with the horrific nickname of “Bloody Mary.”

Jessica Raine as Catherine Parr in Becoming Elizabeth
Photo: Starz

Becoming Elizabeth may not be every Tudor fan’s cup of tea. The subject matter is dark and the show doesn’t take pains to make any part of drama seem escapist or aspirational. The scripts aren’t as didactic as historical drama fans might be used to and (ironically, given the show’s tag line) folks who haven’t cracked open an Antonia Fraser tome might be a little lost. But I personally found it exciting to watch a show that clearly went to the source materials first and not a paperback novel.

Moreover, the acting in Becoming Elizabeth is spectacular. Alicia von Rittberg is picture perfect as the teen Elizabeth, from her copper hair to clear-eyed intelligence. But what’s more impressive is how the German actress is able to balance glimpses of the titan Elizabeth will become with the reality that she’s still a lonely, confused adolescent. Tom Cullen  is shockingly able to make Thomas Seymour into a three-dimensional character. You understand the pull he has on the women of the court, but you always also see his dark side. Romola Garai is fabulous as always, and Jessica Raine imbues Catherine Parr with bite. However, the scene-stealer of the cast has to be Game of Thrones alum Bella Ramsey, who takes the usually infantilized Lady Jane Grey and makes her a worthy rival to Elizabeth.

The first four episodes of Becoming Elizabeth establish the foundation for what could be the next era of Starz’s historical dramas. This show is darker, more disturbing, and more mature than what we’ve seen before. But it remains to be seen if Becoming Elizabeth, like its leading lady herself, can evolve past the Thomas Seymour drama.

Becoming Elizabeth premieres on June 12 on Starz.


Soruce : https://decider.com/2022/06/06/becoming-elizabeth-on-starz-review/

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