Few British dynasties have inspired as much material in recent years as that of the Tudors. From Showtime’s aptly named The Tudors to Hilary Mantel’s book/play/series Wolf Hall to the current Broadway musical Six, the turbulent reign of Henry VIII and his six equally tumultuous marriages have clearly not lacked in retelling. If you want to tell a story about this family at this point, you have to find a new way into their well-trodden history.
Anya Reiss’ Becoming Elizabeth, which premieres June 12 on Starz, aims to solve this problem by picking it up at a more unusual point in Henry VIII’s story — 1547, to be precise, just minutes away after his death. This gives Reiss a gift for unraveling the uniquely chaotic questions of succession, self-preservation, and the escalating tensions between Protestants and Catholics. Additionally, the series is able to give Henry’s three surviving children – the pious Mary (Romola Garai), the troubled middle child Elizabeth (Alicia von Rittberg) and the new young King Edward (Oliver Zetterstrom) – more attention than these productions about the adults who they can often rule life.
As the title suggests, the new drama revolves primarily around Elizabeth, who was 14 when her father’s death made her a pawn in several competing games at the Tudor court. Although she would eventually become the legendary Elizabeth I, she found herself torn between Mary, a devout Catholic, and Edward, a stubborn Protestant, as they jostled for power and influence. Moving in with her stepmother Catherine Parr (Jessica Raine) and Catherine’s new husband Thomas Seymour (Tom Cullen), she became an object of fascination and plaything. She was young enough that her lady-in-waiting, Kat Ashley (Alexandra Gilbreath), acted more as a concerned grandmother than a servant, but old enough to be forced to live with tween Lady Jane Gray (Bella Ramsey from Game of Thrones). felt like an insult. Far enough in the line of succession to be dismissed but still technically a princess, Elizabeth quickly learned that she had to find her way forward to avoid being left behind.
First, Becoming Elizabeth presents England’s future long-reigning queen as little more than a passenger in her own history. In the first episode, the heart of the story lies with Catherine and Thomas, whose mutual relief at Henry’s death leads them to rekindle their past romance in every corner of their stunning Chelsea mansion. (The sets and costume design of “Becoming Elizabeth” are suitably sumptuous to paint portraits of royal privilege run amok; the only ahistorical aspect of the series, it seems, is Tim Phillips’ haunting piano reduction, which underscores some of the suspense Moments with intentionally disturbing intent.)
As Catherine and Thomas, Raine and Cullen are instantly charismatic as a couple. Infusing both characters with breathlessly ruthless streaks, they make it easy to understand their characters’ dizzying connection – and why Elizabeth, lonely and lost as she was, would end up idolizing her for it. But where the series gets more interesting and uncomfortable is when Thomas’s allure shifts into something far more sinister when he directs it directly at the young princess in his care. When Thomas sees Elizabeth’s frustration at being treated “like a child” and seizes an opportunity, he makes it his mission to make sure she’s on his side, whatever it takes.
The series is clever in fleshing out the court and the world beyond the initially limited framework of the teenage Elizabeth. In particular, Mary’s struggle to reconcile her love for her brother with that for her Catholic faith eventually gives Garai more to do than cry in frustration, especially with the introduction of Pedro (Ekow Quartey), a troubled Spanish envoy. But in confronting Thomas’s insidious fixation on Elizabeth and the ensuing so-called “Seymour scandal,” which almost ended her chances of becoming queen long before she took the throne, “Becoming Elizabeth” finds its unique vantage point to unveil their story.
However, viewers should be forewarned that watching Thomas manipulate Elizabeth’s teenage crush to his advantage is so disturbing. In the first four episodes given to critics for review (out of eight total), the series goes into this intimate dynamic of abuse far more explicitly than I honestly ever expected. Add to that the fact that Cullen and Von Rittberg are so compelling as the handsome uncle characters and the overwhelmed teenager respectively that I had to be careful that the age difference between the actors isn’t lifelike. (Although Von Rittberg makes a very convincing teenager, thankfully she’s in her late twenties.)
As Thomas orbits Elizabeth and Catherine finally begins to realize that his affection for her stepdaughter is taking a different form than she had anticipated, Becoming Elizabeth evolves from typical palace intrigue into something devastatingly personal. After having little to do in the first few episodes, despite the show being ostensibly about her character, Von Rittberg is finally able to stretch her muscles as Elizabeth tries to wield her power and influence in her own way. The differences between her behavior towards Thomas, to whom she is desperate to prove that she is an adult, and her boyfriend Robert Dudley (Jamie Blackley), with whom she feels comfortable being herself, highlight the subtlety of Rittberg’s performance.
It will be instructive to see how Thomas and Elizabeth’s story unfolds in the second half of the season. The first four episodes mostly walk the fine line between depicting Elizabeth’s fascination with Thomas and justifying his reaction to it, not to mention illustrating the seriousness of the situation without making the characters’ reactions sound entirely ahistorical. So it would be disappointing, to say the least, if the show tipped into salacious territory upon seeing this arc’s doomed ending, or gave it up as the “scandal” it’s since labeled it. So far, however, Becoming Elizabeth is stable enough to offer hope for a more nuanced ending.
“Becoming Elizabeth” premieres Sunday, June 12 at 9 p.m. EST on Starz.
https://variety.com/2022/tv/reviews/becoming-elizabeth-review-1235290956/ Becoming Elizabeth Review: Starz’s Elizabeth I drama finds new ground in