Bette Davis' second historical epic of 1939, after the stilted Juarez, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is more effective and more stylish, but it suffers from much of the same overabundance of exposition, plus a rather bland lead performance from Errol Flynn as the Earl of Essex, whose relationship with Davis' Queen Elizabeth I forms the core of the movie. Davis, however, does a rather remarkable job as the semi-decrepit Elizabeth, stripping away her youth (she was only 31 at the time) and once again showing no regard for vanity as the pasty-faced, haggard queen. She delivers the often awkward dialogue with panache, and gives an emotional realism to the mercurial queen, who is often dismissing Essex and begging him not to leave her all within the same scene.
That melodramatic back-and-forth gets a little tiresome after a while, though, and Flynn's generically heroic Essex doesn't match up to Davis' imperious queen, leaving their love story a little lopsided. The court intrigue around them is also a bit underdeveloped, despite the welcome presence of Olivia de Havilland as a court attendant who's also in love with Essex. It's standard costume-drama stuff, and only Davis' captivating performance really elevates it. Even when spouting some awfully stiff dialogue, she struts and twitches like a woman possessed, and really disappears into the part (not something she's generally known for).
Davis' Elizabeth is a lot more fragile than the most dominant image of Elizabeth we have from current cinema, Cate Blanchett in 1998's Elizabeth and 2007's Elizabeth: The Golden Age, but she's equally a product of her time (that is, the time in which the movie was made). Actresses struggled to be taken seriously apart from the men they lusted after as part of entertainment for the masses, and here Elizabeth does just the same.