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The death of arguably the most controversial monarch in British history, Henry VIII, incites a mad dash for political gain in Becoming Elizabeth. One of the pawns on the board is his daughter and the show’s namesake, Elizabeth, who will eventually become famous in her own right as the fiery haired “Virgin Queen.” But that’s many years away, and she must navigate the competing interests, scandals and threats from all sides before then.
Becoming Elizabeth was created and written by Anya Reiss (BBC’s EastEnders). It stars Alicia von Rittberg (Fury), Romola Garai (Emma, Atonement), Tom Cullen (Knightfall, Downton Abbey) and Jessica Raine (Call the Midwife).
Chiefly, I want to discuss how the spectacular score by Tim Phillips (Shameless) lays the entire foundation for what is a very ominous coming-of-age story. Phillips bucks the tradition of using just soaring “classical” instrumentals to emphasize the time period. Instead, there’s a more modern approach: jumpy keyboard notes, percussions and dissonant, drawn-out hums, and reverbs. For whatever reason, it reminds one of the soundtracks to the early Goosebumps movies or maybe even an old police procedural where the climax was always on the tail-end of some dramatic piano keys. But even the moody, 1980s synth theme music to Netflix’s Stranger Things might give the youngins out there a better comparison to draw from.
Truth be told, it’s very possible that some viewers won’t like this score in Becoming Elizabeth–that’s how jarring it is from what we’re used to in this genre. However, I would like to propose to those still on the fence that this clearly much more cacophonous tone for a period piece is useful in a thematic sense in two ways. One, it establishes what we already accept about Elizabeth as an adult historical figure in how she was ahead of her time. The music is quite literally ahead of this time. We see the early inklings of this future persona imagined in the Starz series by Elizabeth speaking her mind and going against the will of the status quo (i.e. the patriarchy) in several scenes, even as a 14-year-old. The hunting scene where Elizabeth takes down a fully grown stag (like every good Queen must do at some point in a biopic) is accompanied by these contemporary sounds. And it feels, both aesthetically and sonically, like a collision between the image of a heroine of hold and the echoing reverberation of her future destiny as a ruler. And that’s the whole point of the story, isn’t it? Elizabeth’s legacy precedes her at every turn; she can’t escape it.
But there’s a darker side of that legacy, too. In the wake of her father King Henry VIII’s death, whose six wives famously lived and died at his discretion, Elizabeth is smack in the middle of a true game of thrones, where everyone wants the power and control left up for grabs. Becoming Elizabeth suggests one scenario that could’ve happened as a result of the political chaos with the relationship between her and Thomas Seymour, who was 25 years her senior and historically rumored to have been her lover. But it’s not a love story in the series; it’s a story about how romantically grooming a 14-year-old, even a future queen, into the bed of a grown man was the norm.
Despite the fact that we are purposefully not told Elizabeth’s age until well into the story, all the signs of this problem are there. This is where the intriguing musical score comes into play yet again. Essentially, it’s a near-constant red herring of Seymour’s true nature or, in other words, an ominous staccato hint at his villainy. On the surface, he is handsome, charming and amusing, and knows all the right things to say to lull us as viewers and Elizabeth herself into a sense of comfortability. However, the freakish tones of the score automatically put a viewer on notice that something is not right here. It’s a foreboding. Again, Elizabeth’s destiny is quite literally beating a drum, pressing up against the confines of this situation, and although she can’t hear it for herself yet, we know that she’ll come to learn it in the long run.
There are still more episodes to come in Becoming Elizabeth. And I’m looking forward to seeing how this dynamic continues to play out in other ways.
Becoming Elizabeth goes beyond mere court intrigue and makes a testimony to the influence of the powerful over the powerless. It’s assisted majorly by an eager and incredibly telling arrangement of sounds that stitches the lofty narrative together. In short, it’s a bold entry in the arena of historical dramas.
Given the current political climate, especially with the recent overturning of Roe vs. Wade in the U.S., I feel like Becoming Elizabeth would be an interesting conversation starter series. Whether it be a college class or a group of like-minded friends, the weighty themes within are ripe to parse apart. Those themes being the plight of women, mind-body autonomy and the power structures that maintain the status quo.