Powerful performances, lavish costumes; it’s all there in this Tudor-time love story – well, almost. A lack of real substance to the storyline, not to mention the odd historical detail gone walkabout, means The Virgin Queen punches below its weight and may sadly remain overlooked.
It could have delivered so much more than it does. A top-drawer cast means the main characters are portrayed with genuine raw emotion in a story that is essentially a love triangle between Elizabeth I (Bette Davis), Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd) and lady-in-waiting Beth Throgmorton (Joan Collins). It all begins when Raleigh helps Robert Dudley (Herbert Marshall) free his carriage from a quagmire. In return, Dudley – Earl of Leicester and trusted royal advisor – grants Raleigh’s wish of a meeting with Queen Elizabeth, who is instantly smitten with him. The conflicting relationships that come about as a consequence help to make life for those involved more than a little uncomfortable.
Todd is watchable and likeable thoughout, as a man who is torn between honour and ambition. He is convincing enough to allow us to feel some sympathy for Raleigh; even though he is acting immorally, he faces a catch-22 situation which just goes to show how ambition can compromise a person, no matter how honourable. However, it’s Davis and those infamous ‘Bette Davis Eyes’, that were once immortalised in song, that take the plaudits and show you exactly why she remains one of the finest talents ever to grace Hollywood.
How an American actress ever managed to perfect such aristocratic tones is a wonder in itself. This, combined with the attention to detail that went into preparing for the role, means that some would argue it is an even better performance than her original one as Elizabeth some sixteen years earlier, in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.
The love-hate nature of the relationship between the two is subtly conveyed by the pace of the direction: too quick and it would seem implausible; too slow and the entire basis of the movie would collapse. The dimly-lit night-time scenes away from court also cleverly convey the clandestine nature of Raleigh and Lady Throgmorton’s blossoming romance that is (seemingly) going on right under the Queen’s nose. Yet, as is the case with so many historical dramas that contain a love story laced with tragedy, the complexities of the relationships at hand are watered down as are, in this case, the intricacies of life in the Elizabethan court.
Whilst this is far from being one for the purists, it should continue to keep the majority of audiences entertained – albeit not royally so.