For a screenwriter, it must be a fantastic high to hear your words performed by Helen Mirren. With vocal tones that slide from fierce to pretty to pathetic, the British actress could make a political blog sound like Elizabethan poetry.
In HBO's ''Elizabeth I," Mirren turns writer Nigel Williams's already gorgeous dialogue into the great bittersweet song of a middle-age queen -- ''late fruit of the tree a breath away from withering," as she calls herself. Mirren takes charge of each meter she speaks in the two-parter, which begins tomorrow night at 8, and she gives our most towering Elizabeth, Glenda Jackson in ''Elizabeth R," a serious runner-up. She summons all of the rich character contradiction -- blindness and brilliance, weakness and violent power -- that have made Elizabeth I one of history's most interpreted rulers. And she tops it all with a crown of cleverly barbed wit.
Jeremy Irons is here, too, as Elizabeth's addiction, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. And Irons is his usual wooden self, and tiresomely so, looking ridiculous as a jaunty romantic with puffy bags under his eyes and stiffness in his joints.
But ultimately his straining for youth serves the script's depiction of older people acting like children. Elizabeth's emotional immaturity was a spectacle, even 20 years into her reign, where the movie begins. Both Mirren, 60, and Irons, 57, are playing beneath their age in part one, when the Virgin Queen and her frustrated lover are in their mid-40s. When Elizabeth and Dudley were truly young, they couldn't marry for political reasons, and in ''Elizabeth I" we see them undergoing a perverse, almost vengeful arrested development together.
The story opens on a vaguely feminist pivot, as Elizabeth undergoes a gynecological exam to confirm she is a virgin and can still bear children. Her body is a political holding; she knows it well, and continues to sacrifice her love life for her job. The older she gets, the more insecure her monarchy becomes as it faces a succession battle. She is under pressure to find a royal husband who won't threaten her Protestant rule, and also to produce an heir. Alas, it would be centuries before any woman, including a queen, could think about ''having it all," as the social commentators and TV commercials put it.
France's Duke of Anjou seems as good a husband/alliance as any, and Elizabeth is charmed by him, even though he is Catholic; but she's impossibly stuck on Dudley. When she learns of Dudley's secret marriage to another, she thunders at him, ''We forbid you access to our presence." But despite her ferocity -- and Mirren throws herself into Elizabeth's shameless rages -- it's only another off-again that will be on again soon enough. You know it, and so do Elizabeth's eye-rolling council members, including Sir William Cecil (Ian McDiarmid) and Sir Francis Walsingham (Patrick Malahide), who resent Dudley's power over their queen. They admire her shrewdness but suffer the consequences of her girlish dalliances.
By part two, on Monday night at 8, Dudley is gone, years and thoughts of marriage have passed, and Elizabeth's inappropriate behavior sails into full folly. She chases Dudley's callow stepson, the Earl of Essex (Hugh Dancy), and allows herself to be exploited by him. ''The looking glass is banished," she commands to her assistants early into her Essex fixation, as she struggles to keep her denial and vanity intact. Essex is clearly a duplicitous creep, a fact emphasized by Dancy's fittingly shallow teen-idol performance -- but only Elizabeth can't see that. He becomes her substitute for Dudley, an easy way for her to feel desirable.
''Elizabeth I" has a theatrical quality, in that Williams's language is so dazzling and prone to monologues. This queen speaks with Shakespearean grandeur. But it is far from a filmed play; director Tom Hooper has given the story sweep and period authenticity, too, with extras and horses and a few instances of horrifying violence, including a disemboweling.
The queen's 16th-century regal drag is practically a character in itself. It takes a full staff to drape her in all her frilly finery and to apply her garish makeup and curly wig, scenes that remind us there's a woman inside all of that royal mummification.
But no matter how bundled up she is, Mirren is so vivid you almost forget you've seen this queen's story before, most recently on PBS's excellent ''The Virgin Queen." With such a sovereign performance, Mirren simply can't be missed.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.