Becoming Elizabeth review – like Succession, but sexier

This romp through the Tudor court shows a poisonous family power struggle with sex at its heart – and with so many fascinating monsters on screen, you won’t be able to look away

What is that look on Jessica Raine’s face in the first few minutes of Becoming Elizabeth (Starzplay)? It is January 1547 and Henry VIII, the husband of her character, Catherine Parr, is newly deceased. On hearing the news, Catherine’s whole being bristles with … relief? Happiness? Plans already afoot? Surely it couldn’t be … arousal?

Becoming Elizabeth, created by Anya Reiss, is a historical drama that lives for those moments of motives unclear. Everyone is plotting at all times, often while joining us in trying to suss out someone else’s ambitions. Yes, it is yet another drama about the Tudors, but it is neither hysterically soapy nor primly reverential. Its heart is salty and black.

While a group of unlucky footmen heave Henry’s heavy coffin, we are introduced to the king’s surviving children, who, we are reminded, all had different mothers: Mary, the eldest; Elizabeth, a teenager; and Edward, the male heir, but merely a child. Immediately, Edward is ushered away by his uncle, the Duke of Somerset, who seats the kid at the head of a governing council, but appoints himself lord protector. A power struggle that will involve all three half-siblings, and their stepmother, Catherine, has begun.

Take away the period trappings and there is an obvious point of comparison. If you need a hint, well, the show is about a succession. Although the Logan Roy figure is missing, here is another clan who see loyalty as a weakness to be probed for personal gain. What Becoming Elizabeth has that Succession largely doesn’t is an acknowledgment of sex as an instrument of power and power as a provider of quasi-sexual thrills.

Viewers who went for “arousal” in that opening bereavement sweepstake can collect their winnings when we see Catherine enjoying a naked celebration with Thomas Seymour, the brother of her late husband’s third wife. When they are done (“Did the old king make you come like that?”), they begin conspiring. Once Thomas learns from an eavesdropping servant (“Listen in, why don’t you? Pull up a chair! Have some wine!”) that his brother Somerset is already scheming to control their nephew Edward, he gets out of bed and sets about stopping him.

As played by a slyly sparkling Tom Cullen, Thomas is the main character, although if you are armed with spoilers from history, you will know that he is unlikely to remain so for long. You will also stiffen in apprehension when Catherine describes Elizabeth as a “pawn” in her game. When the riotously charming Thomas meets the vulnerable princess, Becoming Elizabeth drops its rollicking cheekiness and tiptoes bravely into some shadowy places.

In real life, Elizabeth was 13 when she endured Thomas’s visits to her bedchamber for tickling, bottom-slapping and other “horseplay”. Here, she is played by Alicia von Rittberg, who was 27 at the time of filming and acts as if Elizabeth is more like mid-to-late teens, a young woman whose political and personal awakenings are accelerated by conversations with a predator. The scenes between Von Rittberg and Cullen are icky but electric, as Elizabeth is naively excited by Thomas’s inappropriate advances (“Have your tutors assigned me as something for you to study?”, he says, noticing her eyes on his midriff). Then, even when she realises a fairytale romance is not on offer, she is still – for now, at least – bewildered by the older man’s expert flattery.

This is dark meat, with the feeling of danger at every turn in the Tudor court exacerbated by Justin Chadwick’s thoughtful direction, particularly his use of light. Night-time scenes paint anywhere not warmed by torch or candle as an inky abyss; in the day, characters gather round windows, half-illuminated by silver sun. One such setup, a dialogue between the showboating Thomas and the bitter, rational Somerset (John Heffernan), suggests Becoming Elizabeth might pull off the Succession trick of having so many fascinating monsters that every other scene is the kind of intensely consequential showdown lesser dramas spend entire seasons building towards.

We get powerful F-bombs, too, including from Edward, who soon adjusts to life as a monarch. “I am the fucking King!” he spits at Somerset, displeased by the suggestion that his refusal to marry Mary, Queen of Scots, as his late father intended, is “against the King’s wishes”. Oliver Zetterström gives Edward the air of a brat who, on being ejected five minutes into a tour of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, would arrange to have all the oompa-loompas beheaded before burning the place down.

It is quite the ensemble. We have barely heard from Mary yet, but, since she is played by the mighty Romola Garai, her Catholic piety is bound to be a whole other bag of psychological snakes with which to wrestle. This take on the Tudors boasts poison of every flavour. Succession has a very promising heir.


Jack Seale

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Succession review: smash hit reaches fabulous new heights of comedy – and cruelty
From the bloody machinations of Logan and Kendall to Cousin Greg’s buffoonery, the third series of the HBO drama continues to deliver the most thrilling and beautifully obscene TV there is

Rebecca Nicholson

18, Oct, 2021 @9:05 PM

Article image
Special Ops: Lioness review – like a female Mission Impossible
Zoe Saldana and Nicole Kidman lead a starry cast in this drama about an elite all-woman unit of marines. It’s absolute nonsense, but it’s solid, action-packed entertainment

Lucy Mangan

23, Jul, 2023 @4:00 AM

Article image
Resident Evil review – you will binge-watch like never before
This gory, cliffhanger-packed video game adaptation is eight hours of mindless, blood-soaked zombie fun – just what you need to forget about 2022

Lucy Mangan

14, Jul, 2022 @11:23 AM

Article image
The Dry review – this painfully funny dramedy is like an Irish Fleabag
This masterful Dublin-set show from Normal People’s production company follows a recovering alcoholic – and it’s as dark and nourishing as a pint of Guinness

Chitra Ramaswamy

05, May, 2022 @10:36 AM

Article image
Munich Games review – this tense thriller’s hero is like a multilingual terminator
Gun-toting, omnicompetent police officer Maria Köhler is out to stop a terror attack tied to the 1972 massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes. She’s the kind of person you want on your side

Stuart Jeffries

09, Sep, 2022 @10:00 PM

Article image
From review: the spooky sci-fi drama that’s like a landlocked Lost
This show about a village where the laws of nature don’t apply has plenty in common with the plane-crash drama – even down to the fact it stars Harold Perrineau

Stuart Jeffries

26, Jul, 2022 @10:05 PM

Article image
The Flight Attendant review – so entertaining it’s like a modern-day Charlie’s Angels
Season two of Kaley Cuoco’s spy caper turns the WTF dial up to 11 for an exhilarating, zippy romp that leaves you feeling absolutely giddy

Rebecca Nicholson

26, May, 2022 @9:05 PM

Article image
Pistol review – Danny Boyle’s wonky Sex Pistols show is like Punk: the Panto!
Johnny Rotten is the Artful Dodger crossed with an animated rodent in Boyle’s frustrating series that feels so cartoonish it falls totally flat

Rebecca Nicholson

31, May, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Single Drunk Female review – this rare joy is like a next-level Fleabag
Disney+’s superior coming-of-age show about a recovering addict’s hard-won emotional maturity is direct, straightforward, even earnest – but still full of comic drama

Ellen E Jones

06, Apr, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
Pachinko review – a sumptuous South Korean epic like nothing else on TV
Min Jin Lee’s bestselling novel gets a tantalising adaptation that sweeps back and forth from Korea in 1915 to Japan’s Wall Street era. It’s a rollercoaster ride through time and space

Stuart Jeffries

25, Mar, 2022 @9:00 AM