Tuesday, May 5, 2020
The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex: A Review
THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX
For being The Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I had more than her fair share of romances. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex has two great leading performances and as lavish a world as could be photographed.
Powerful but arrogant Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn) has returned to England in what he thinks is triumph, but Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I (Bette Davis) is not amused. She finds her courtier has failed and brought near-ruin rather than shame. After openly condemning him down to slapping him before the whole Court, Essex leaves this "King in Petticoats".
It's clear Gloriana misses her paramour but both are too proud to seek forgiveness. Elizabeth's shrewd courtier Francis Bacon (Donald Crisp) finds a way to recall Essex to Court: take charge of a floundering military campaign in Ireland, but as State Councilor versus military head. Elizabeth all but leaps at the chance to be reunited with the younger man as is he.
Displeased is Lady Penelope (Olivia de Havilland), smitten with Essex. She joins in a conspiracy after Essex's arrogance gets him the title Lord Protector of Ireland and a chance for military glory. Not only does he fail militarily but believes Liz has abandoned him in every way. He mounts a rebellion that almost succeeds, but the wily monarch has a few tricks up her own elaborate sleeves. Tricking him into surrendering his men, she has him imprisoned. Their pride prevents them from seeking or granting pardon, and Lord Essex is beheaded.
Bette Davis initially dismissed Errol Flynn as an actor, only much later upon rewatching The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex realizing she had been wrong. I put it down to Davis' own great ego that she failed to see Flynn was more than her equal. Their scenes together are absolute knockouts, full of fire, fury and passion between rivals and lovers.
From their first scenes together as they argue the merits of Essex's Cadiz campaign the intensity in Davis and Flynn's performances are filled with fireworks. They were equally able to play tender lovers, their scenes exuding gentle emotions. They even have a few laughs in the way intimates can.
Separately both do great work also. Davis makes Gloriana into a mercurial figure: part vain woman aware of the passing years, part lonely figure hungry for love. This Elizabeth is aware of the wicked ways of courtiers, but we also see that Essex's betrayal wounds her deeply. It wounds her vanity and ego, but it also wounds her heart. At times raging, at times at a loss, at times genuinely kind, Davis delivers an exceptional performance.
Flynn is a master at being dashing and daring, but he brings a surprising vulnerability as Essex. A strong point is when he realizes that his Irish rival the Earl of Tyrone (Alan Hale, doing a great job himself) has defeated him. The conflicting emotions all flood at him and Flynn delivers Essex's private agony and shame just through his face.
A surprise is de Havilland, who was often paired with Flynn in swashbuckling films. Though their few scenes, maybe one, was strong, it is a nice turn to see de Havilland be essentially an evil, selfish figure. Her palpable hatred for Elizabeth when her name is mentioned is shown in how her face, and when she ridicules the aging monarch via song we see just how nasty Olivia could be.
In smaller roles, Crisp and Vincent Price as Sir Walter Raleigh do strong work well. Crisp in particular does well as the ever vigilant Bacon, a man who is able to ride out the whirlwind due to his own ability to go whichever way the wind blows.
Director Michael Curtiz simply has not been given enough credit for being a master of his craft. He keeps everything moving quickly, making effective use of shadows (such as withholding revealing Elizabeth early on) and camera movements (such as the slow close-up to Elizabeth at Essex's execution). He is helped masterfully by Erich Wolfgang Korngold's lavish score, which shifts from majestic to intimate to tragic with equal ease.
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is both lavish historic film and intimate love story. Excellently acted and grand to a T, it is worth watching these private lives.