Ann Seymour: Do not attempt to confuse me by using words beyond my understanding.
Bess: I am sorry, madame, but they are difficult to avoid.
~from Young Bess (1953)
Every generation has its own interpretation of the complex soul of Elizabeth Tudor. The 1953 film Young Bess, starring Jean Simmons as the future Elizabeth I of England and Stewart Granger as Thomas Seymour, is a romanticized version of Margaret Irwin's historical novel. I read the book as a young teen, and first saw the film when it ran one night on the late movie back in the '70's. Although it is replete with 1950's technicolor glamor, Young Bess still surpasses many contemporary renditions of the life of Elizabeth I for its fairly authentic exploration of the unique situations of her youth. The focus is on her tragic involvement with her stepmother's husband Tom Seymour, who in the film is shown as being Elizabeth's overwhelming first love. Simmons and Granger, who were married in real life, are able to communicate the intensity of the dangerous infatuation while hardly touching each other. I remember, watching the film way back when, how my mother said, "Those old movies were so full of passion and no one ever took their clothes off."
While the film, like most films, can be picked apart from a historical point of view, Jean Simmons' portrayal of the teenage Elizabeth Tudor is positively brilliant. Jean is much prettier than the real Elizabeth, but her beauty does not prevent her from becoming Bess. She captures the combination of intense vulnerability and insecurity of a motherless girl whose paternity has been questioned. In Jean's first scene she projects with a flash of the eyes the strong will, the indomitable determination of the adolescent princess to survive at all costs. Always one feels Bess' sense of her dignity as the daughter of a king, a dignity which she will not compromise even though it strives against her longing to be loved.
Jean Simmons' Bess confronts her changes of fortune with incredible poise and self-possession, while emanating the very real anxieties that the daughter of Anne Boleyn had to face. One can understand in her portrayal why the love-starved girl became smitten with Tom Seymour. Yet in spite of her devastation at the tragic outcome of the highly inappropriate relationship, she keeps her head, and does not let herself be destroyed.
Charles Laughton is the best Henry VIII ever, a villainous old swine, conflicted over his past deeds, and especially torn in his feelings for "Nan Bullen's brat." Deborah Kerr is the lovely, gracious sixth queen, Katherine Parr, who tries to create a semblance of family life for the motherless Bess and her brother Edward. It is sad that because of Seymour, Bess loses the motherly guidance of Queen Katherine, and comes to the verge of public disgrace. In the last scene, as the new young queen greets her people, the inner pain and deep bitterness radiate from her face amid the triumph and promise of glory.