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Television | THE TV SET

An iron fist, a less certain heart

The complexities of the Virgin Queen challenge a 21st century cast in a city that's worlds apart.

April 16, 2006|Kristin Hohenadel | Special to The Times

Vilnius, Lithuania — EVERY film set has an undercurrent of whispers, heated speculation about who is sleeping with whom. And on a scorching day last summer at the Lithuanian Film Studio in this quiet Eastern European city, everyone had an opinion about a certain Elizabeth, leading lady and reported resident virgin. Had she or hadn't she? And if so, with whom? Was it dashing Leicester, her trusted advisor and constant companion? Or the dazzling young Essex, her latest obsession?

This was the set of "Elizabeth I," a four-hour miniseries about the so-called Virgin Queen directed by Tom Hooper ("Red Dust") and starring Helen Mirren, with Jeremy Irons as the earl of Leicester and Hugh Dancy as the earl of Essex. A co-production with Britain's Channel 4, where it aired last fall, the two-part drama will be shown on HBO on Saturday and April 24. Written by Nigel Williams, "Elizabeth I" takes a personal look at the later reign of a politically powerful woman whose private and public lives were perilously intermingled.

"The relationship that Tony Blair has with Cherie Blair doesn't have an immediate binding effect on the body politic with Britain," said Hooper. "But in the Elizabethan court, whoever was Elizabeth's lover rose to the most powerful political player in the court, became a multimillionaire, had the power to bestow land and status to other people."

Elizabeth had more to lose than her virginity by giving in to her desires -- the risk of disease, the life-threatening possibility of childbirth, the loss of her power to a king-husband or an heir. Men had everything to gain from flattering her, and it was impossible to know where their affections ended and their self-interest began.

The movie opens in 1579 as a royal gynecologist inspects the unmarried, 45-year-old Elizabeth's seemingly public parts to find out if she is still capable of bearing an heir, a national obsession. Until the end, Elizabeth defends herself against questions of succession, the Catholic threat from Spain, the endless flattery of countless men and the battles of her own mind and heart.

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A city recast

THE day's shooting had included a scene in which Leicester rescues the queen from an assassination attempt while strolling in a pebble-and-rosebush-covered garden, which had been built from thin air and would be torn down in a few days. Across town in an abandoned Soviet-era sports stadium, the filmmakers had re-created a spectacular suite of chambers from the original Whitehall Palace, in the shadow of avocado-green bleachers that went so high you had to crane your neck to see where they ended.

Vilnius has a World Heritage site jewel of a city center and the Hugo Boss boutiques, sushi bars, newly expensive hotels, cheap beer, strip clubs and fledgling moviemaking business that are the hallmarks of a burgeoning post-communist economy. At the airport's one-room arrival lounge, young Lithuanian men wait for their girlfriends with single long-stemmed flowers and it's standing room only at Sunday morning Mass in the city's dozens of churches. On the streets, long-legged young women dress like working girls and nobody turns their heads.

It seems an unlikely setting in which to make a classic English period drama -- except that production costs can run at a third of the price of those in the U.K., and there is less red tape than trying to shoot on location at Hampton Court or on the streets of London. "Here we can build Hollywood-scale sets on a television budget," Hooper said.

" 'It's great here, you can do anything' -- I hear that a lot," said Eve Stewart, the production designer. "And in a way, you can. But the challenge of trying to build Elizabethan London and Elizabethan palaces in a country that has absolutely no cultural reference points for London, England, anything Western -- it was just like madness in one way."

The city's castle had the wrong style roof for the period (it was taken off using special effects). The churches were Baroque. Even the vegetation -- "pine trees and Chekhovian cherry orchards and nothing English" -- was wrong, Stewart said. "In a way it worked in my favor, because we realized about 10 minutes after getting here that we would have to build everything." She admired the locals' ability to transform scrap materials into beautiful sets and their woodworking skills to carve Elizabethan-style chairs out of wood from the plentiful Lithuanian forests. But it was hard for the British crew to work with a support team of mostly untrained locals in a language they could not begin to grasp. "I mean it's been a slog, to be really honest," Stewart said. "I mean it's been great, but it's, yeah, it's very hard. I've worked in a lot of Europe and America, but this is a big cultural difference. If you're from an Eastern bloc, you feel dislocated from power and used to just constantly being told what to do, rather than being proactive and taking responsibility."

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