The new historical drama series on M-Net, Becoming Elizabeth, focuses on the young life of Queen Elizabeth I. While a look at her young life is fairly unique, there have been many actresses who have taken on this royal role throughout movie and TV history. Before we take a stroll down the lane of historical reconstruction (by way of a detour of dramatic license), let’s clarify which Lizzie we’re looking at.
Which Queen Elizabeth?
British royal history is long, complicated, and dramatic – made even more complicated and confusing by their insistence on using the same names over and over again. History is inundated with the names Elizabeth, Richard, Charles, Henry, George, Edward, James, and Mary – just imagine what a muddle family reunions must have been – and in recent history, we’ve had two Queen Elizabeths, a King Charles, a Prince Harry (actual name: Henry), and who knows, one day we may even have a King George. All names we’ve seen coupled with royal titles before.
Elizabeth is a particularly popular name. We grew up with the recently deceased Queen Elizabeth II. Her mother was also called Queen Elizabeth, but to avoid confusion she was known as the Queen Mother. We’re focusing on Queen Elizabeth I, whose grandmother and great-grandmother were also called Elizabeth (insert frustrated sigh). Also known as Elizabeth Tudor, she was only distantly related to the Lizzies of the 20th and 21st centuries, because as the “Virgin” Queen she produced no royal issue, and so we bid adieu to the House of Tudor.
Now that our history lesson is over, let’s take a look at how she’s been immortalised on the screen, allowing the Tudors and Queen Lizzie to live on. Just as there are a lot of Elizabeths, there are a lot of actresses who have taken on Lizzie I. Here are merely a handful of them.
Miranda Richardson, Blackadder season 2 (1986)
This one tops the list because 1) it is our earliest entry and 2) it is our all-time favourite portrayal of Lizzie. Ever! This series is a rollicking satirical romp through history, led by the deliciously devious Blackadder, played to perfection by Rowan Atkinson. Richardson is an absolute scream as the queen, regaling us with regal lines like: “Oh Edmund. I do love it when you get cross. Sometimes I think about having you executed, just to see the expression on your face.”
Quentin Crisp, Orlando (1992)
Lizzie’s even been played by a man. This film is based on the excellent book of the same name by Virginia Woolf. With the book and movie’s gender-swapping protagonist and its ruminations on the performance of gender roles, it was only fitting for Crisp to take on the role of the famous queen.
Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth (1998) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
Lizzie lived in the 16th and 17th centuries. Australia only became a British penal colony in the 18th century. So if you were to travel back in time and tell Queen Elizabeth I that an Australian would play her in a movie she wouldn’t know what you were talking about, not least because she also wouldn’t know what a movie is. Blanchett’s performances in these two films have been highly lauded, earning her Oscar nominations for Best Actress both times.
Judi Dench, Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Dame Judi’s short but memorable appearance as Queen Elizabeth I in this fictional telling of Shakespeare's writing and staging of Romeo and Juliet earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar win. Funnily enough, Cate Blanchett was nominated in the same year for playing the same queen, but in the Best Actress category.
Helen Mirren, Queen Elizabeth I (2005)
Dame Helen makes our list because she’s fabulous, but also because she’s portrayed both Queen Elizabeth I and II. The latter was in The Queen, for which she won an Oscar, the former was in the television series titled Queen Elizabeth I.
Margot Robbie, Mary Queen of Scots (2019)
Another Aussie took on the role of Lizzie in this film that focuses on her, but more on her sister Mary. The film was criticised for its historical inaccuracy but really now, many of these movies and shows play fast and loose with history. They mostly act as a conduit to inspire you to learn more … should you care to. If not, just admire the pretty costumes, revel in the melodrama that is the British royal family, and marvel at a queen who has left a mark so inedible, storytellers can’t resist returning to her life and reign time and again.
With that we come to one of the latest iterations, which you can watch on M-Net, Becoming Elizabeth. In this new series, Lizzie is played by Alicia von Rittberg, a German actress. Find that weirder than an Aussie? You shouldn’t. A German influence on the British royal family is not that bizarre if you consider that Queen Victoria married a German, King George I was German, and Queen Elizabeth II had four sisters-in-law who married Germans.
If you’re a stickler for historical accuracy, this series is a better bet than something like Shakespeare in Love or Mary Queen of Scots. You’ll also see other famous people of the time portrayed including siblings Mary and Edward, Thomas Seymour, stepmother Catherine Parr, and Jane Grey (played by Bella Ramsey, most recently seen on M-Net in The Last of Us).
Watch Becoming Elizabeth on Mondays at 21:00 on M-Net channel 101 or watch the whole series with DStv Early Acces here.