Starz’s ‘Becoming Elizabeth’ Presents a Portrait of a Young Tudor Princess in Peril
A chapter of Tudor history that is usually not given much attention in film and television is explored in the riveting Starz drama series “Becoming Elizabeth.” Alicia von Rittberg stars as the young princess who would one day be known as Queen Elizabeth I. During the short reign of her younger brother, Edward VI (Oliver Zetterström), both the princess and the boy king, who are 14 and nine years of age, respectively, when their father Henry VIII dies in 1547 at the start of the series, are pawns for grown men and women. Their staunchly Catholic 30-year-old sister, Princess Mary (Romola Garai), is also manipulated, and the younger princess finds herself caught between their fanatical Protestant brother, while also facing threats even closer to home.
“Becoming Elizabeth” is the fourth period drama from Starz in recent years to focus on English royalty after “The White Queen,” “The White Princess” and “The Spanish Princess.” However, this is the first one not based on the novels of Philippa Gregory. Although “Becoming Elizabeth” is less epically romantic, the stakes are still high as the young royal navigates her teen hormones and the rapidly changing political landscape at court. Following her father’s death, Elizabth is sent to live with her stepmother, Henry’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr (Jessica Raine). While Catherine is typically depicted as a woman who is pious and maternal above all else, Raine’s version is more calculating and self-serving. Usually, when it comes to her infamous fourth husband Thomas Seymour (Tom Cullen), the ambitious rakae she hastily married four months after the king’s death, the explanation given is that she was overwhelmed by his charms and gave into lust. This is at least partly the case in “Becoming Elizabeth,” but Catherine is given more agency here, and that, combined with Raine’s outstanding acting, make her a compelling character.
Despite being at the center of everything, Elizabeth is one of the least interesting characters during the first few episodes, as she mostly just reacts to what is going around her. She is attracted to Thomas before and after his marriage to Catherine, despite his being more than 20 years older. While it has been established that the historical Thomas Seymour did display inappropriate behavior while living under the same roof as the princess, including coming into her bedroom before she was dressed, something depicted in “Becoming Elizabeth,” historians are unsure just how far things went between them. The show takes the position that they had a full-fledged affair under Catherine’s nose while she was pregnant. Elizabeth becomes more compelling after she comes more into her own and wises up as to what the adults around here are up to. A turning point is her extravagant 15th birthday, which she realizes is just a ruse to get her brother to notice another one of Catherine’s wards, Lady Jane Grey (a terrific Bella Ramsey, who exudes the perfect mix of innocence and wisdom needed to play her character).
Soon afterwards, Elizabeth learns just how dangerous her position is. Despite some of her grave mistakes, Catherine is a sympathetic character for having survived the reign of Henry VIII, who is notorious for having beheaded two of his wives, and she almost became the third for her outspoken religious beliefs. She’s around long enough to help Elizabeth realize just how dangerous her position is. In a memorable scene, Catherine explains to her stepdaughter that it does not matter so much what a woman has done as it does what people think she has done.
While it is no secret that young Elizabeth will survive her ordeals and eventually become the great queen known as Gloriana, “Becoming Elizabeth” is a gripping story to watch unfold, and not just because it is sexy. Creator Anya Reiss and her team appear to have great empathy for their characters, even Thomas, who would have been easy to have a made a one-note baddie due to his obsessions with sex and power. They also do justice to “Bloody” Mary, who faces persecution due to her steadfast commitment to Catholicism. Despite being constantly surrounded by people, both Elizabeth and Mary are tragically alone, which is never more apparent than in a scene in which Elizabeth is close to confessing all to her older sister, but Mary stops her and reminds her that she could one day use anything she says against her. The royal existence is truly an isolated one.
“Becoming Elizabeth” premieres June 12 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Starz.