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Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Classic Film Review: The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex stars Bette Davis in her first outing as Elizabeth I (the second one would follow in 1955's The Virgin Queen, although she would be playing a younger Elizabeth). Her co-star as the Earl of Essex is Errol Flynn, a surprising pairing but one that, for me anyway, works.

The ageing Elizabeth loves Essex but is fearful of both his ambition and the fact that he may not love her as dearly. The rest of her advisers also dislike him and take the opportunity to provoke him into a doomed campaign in Ireland. When they conspire to keep Elizabeth and Essex from contact it proves to be the catalyst for an ultimately fatal reconciliation.

Bette Davis is captivating, utterly without flaw and fitting the character as well in 1939 as she would do in 1955. There was something about her that made her ideal to play Elizabeth I and she truly makes the role her own. The direction of the film by Michael Curtiz is superbly clever at times. For instance, our first 'glimpse' of Elizabeth comes via shadows on her wall then the wait until we do actually see her face is cleverly drawn out. Shadows are also used to great effect towards the climax of the film. It's a loving piece of drama, put together using lavish costumes and some very fitting dialogue. Davis handles all her lines perfectly, providing them with enough zest for effect but not enough to spill over into melodrama.

There are three scenes which jump out at me as above the excellent standard of the rest of the film. Firstly, the mirror scene where Lady Penelope (Olivia de Havilland) jibes Elizabeth about her looks and she responds by smashing up every mirror in her room and ordering the rest to be removed. Secondly, the scene which directly follows this between Elizabeth and Margaret Radcliffe (Nanette Fabray). This is a touching, beautiful scene and I'm sorry that we saw no more of this small relationship. Finally, the final scene with Elizabeth sat in the Tower crying. Every expression perfectly befits the moment and leaves the audience with a lingering image. I can't praise Davis enough for this performance.

And what of the rest of the cast? Flynn is remarkably enjoyable and he and Davis have a good rapport (even if, as reports suggest, it was based on antipathy). Vincent Price puts in a few good lines as Sir Walter Raleigh; the same goes for Donald Crisp as Francis Bacon. Olivia de Havilland's role was unsurprisingly small and her part a little without definition but she makes a commendable effort when up against the screen presence of the mighty Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth I.

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