The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

When it’s on: Monday, 25 June (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

An acting masterclass from Bette Davis or the archetypal boring mess of a film, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (or Elizabeth and Essex, or as Errol Flynn would have had it, The Knight and the Lady) has divided opinion since its 1939 release. Made as a prestige picture showcasing Davis’s talents, hoovering up a significant portion of Warner Bros’s money and gunning for Oscar glory, it was utterly eclipsed at the Academy Awards by a certain, obscure little film centred on the American Civil War.

Much interest in the film has since revolved around a difficult production period. Davis pretty much arranged the green light with her Oscar for Jezebel fresh in the bag and her personal prestige at its height. For the role of Essex, she wanted Laurence Olivier, but the up and coming British actor was otherwise engaged on Wuthering Heights and not considered to be big time enough to star opposite Davis. Ultimately, Errol Flynn was hired, a decision based entirely on his star power. Davis was outraged, sensing Flynn simply didn’t have the actorly range for the production. There was also a mutual dislike between Flynn and the film’s director, Michael Curtiz. Despite the pair producing such winning results on the screen, off it was a seething discord based on Flynn’s hedonistic lifestyle and unwillingness to master some of the basics, such as learning his lines.

The loathing between Flynn and Davis expressed itself in a famous scene that made the final cut of the film. Required to slap him before the entire court, Davis went for a real wallop rather than the usual ‘screen blow,’ prompting a furious reaction from Flynn that obviously wasn’t faked. The moment was remembered by Flynn in his autobiography – ‘My jaw went out. I felt a click behind my ear and I saw all these comets and shooting stars, all in one flash. It didn’t knock me to the ground. She had given me that little dainty hand, laden with a pound of costume jewelry, right across the ear. I felt as if I were deaf.’

Whether she clocked Flynn to make the moment as authentic as possible, to reprimand him for his cavalier lack of professionalism or out of sheer spite, Davis kind of got lucky. Had she been given her own way, Elizabeth and Essex might have been an extremely worthy yet dull affair. Her performance as the Queen was technically spot on, sucking all the glamour out of the character (Elizabeth was in her mid-sixties when the events recorded in the film took place) to present an austere, distant regent who nevertheless retained a degree of magnetism. She even shaved part of her head to make the wig-wearing queen that little bit more authentic. But her heavy handedness needed Flynn’s light touch to give the piece some balance. It’s all reflected in the sets, designed by Anton Grot. Inspired by German expressionism, Grot delivered undecorated high walls and vast chambers for Elizabeth’s palace, where she spends the entirety of the film. The imagery was gloriously clear – here’s the unreadable queen, tender one moment and fuelled with rage the next, capable of beguiling men much younger than her and discarding them with a moment’s thought.

The work that went into it finds its finest expression in the film’s closing scenes, as Essex awaits execution in the Tower. Elizabeth is staying in a room above the prison, another chamber devoid of anything other than a throne and painted as white as the queen’s own face. The only time colour enters is from the steps that open at its floor, from which yellow light seeps in. When Essex emerges, the light floods in with him. When he goes, it disappears, a perfect comparison of the two characters and of the tension between the actors that breathed life into their chemistry together. A raft of fine actors – Olivia de Havilland, Vincent Price, Henry Stephenson, Henry Daniell – turn up as scheming courtiers, attempting to influence the queen as much as they owe their very existence to her whim, but the focus remains on the leads and their perpetual dance of love and death.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex: ***

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