It is the year 1581. Captain Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd), freshly returned to England from war in Ireland, ingratiates his way into the court of Queen Elizabeth I (Bette Davis). He hopes the gain the Queen’s permission to launch a naval venture, but instead finds himself trapped in court as her new favourite.
The Virgin Queen, directed by Hollywood mainstay Henry Koster, is a lavishly staged 1955 melodrama. It is shot in Cinemascope and with a lurid use of colour in its sets and costumes that is quite typical of its period. Its screenplay is charmingly on-the-nose, with precious little time for subtext or complexity. It is also remarkably inaccurate to historical events – again quite typically for the time in which it was made. Thankfully any outdated scripting or staging is more than compensated for by a couple of great performances – chiefly that of Bette Davis in the title role.
Davis had played Elizabeth I before of course, back in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex in 1939, but this is an actress with 16 more years experience behind her and given the opportunity to play Elizabeth at her height: the middle-aged virgin queen, all-powerful, manipulative, and often-times quite terrifying to serve. Davis plays the role with a bold sense of authority. In her hands Elizabeth seems capricious and often unreasonable, but at the same time rather sympathetic: it is clear that life as a queen is a lonely experience for her, hence her craving for favourites.
The film does do a solid job of throwing the common, straight-talking Raleigh into the Queen’s court of deceitful and toadying aristocrats. The more he tries to gain the Queen’s favour for his naval voyages the more he finds himself stuck by her side – as captain of her guard and then organising her social outings and being forced to sit and share romantic conversations with her.
Richard Todd is a fine Walter Raleigh, although he seems to have much less depth and texture than Elizabeth. He looks fine in the role, and performs confidently, but the screenplay (by Harry Brown) does not flesh Raleigh out enough for Todd to really get to work. A similar problem affects Joan Collins as Raleigh’s lover Elizabeth Throgmorton (a weird renaming – the actual woman was named Throckmorton). The character is weirdly unsympathetic, and Collins gives a relatively insipid and weak performance. Certainly there seems precious little chemistry between her and Todd to sell the Raleigh-Throgmorton romance – which could get them both killed – to the audience. Thankfully a few of the supporting actors help to lift things up a little. Dan O’Herlihy plays Raleigh’s lieutenant Lord Derry with plenty of charm and humour. Robert Douglas gets his teeth into the villainous Christopher Hatton, a former favourite now supplanted in Elizabeth’s favour by Raleigh.
The film looks suitably large-scale in the wide Cinemascope format, and the bright colours really make everything pop rather pleasantly off the screen. It is by no means a necessary film to track down, but Davis does give a marvellous performance. In fact she seems so eminently watchable here that she overshadows by a considerable margin the rest of the film.