Borgen and Elizabeth: how political leaders transform into Machiavelli’s Prince

by Stephen Tall on February 11, 2012

** WARNING — SPOILERS FOLLOW **

Borgen, the Danish West Wing ((C) All Media), has just finished its first series on BBC4, and it’s been a joy (notwithstanding the caveats I voiced a few weeks ago).

And as the series has developed so have I detected more and more similarities with Shekhar Kapur’s 1998 film, Elizabeth. Really. Well, at least give me a hearing… And please forgive the indulgent use of the phrase ‘narrative arc’.

Comparison #1

During the course of Borgen’s 10 episodes we witness the emergence of Moderate leader Birgitte Nyborg Christensen from idealistically and romantically naive ingenue into a ruthless and formidable leader with street-smarts.
(Just like Elizabeth.)

Comparison #2

In the process, she finds that the expectations placed upon her, and by herself, imposes an ever greater strain on her true love. The pressure of being Prime Minister drives a wedge between Birgitte and her husband Philip, and his destructive response is to have an affair that brings their relationship to a crashing end.
(Just as Robert Dudley, Elizabeth’s first and deepest love betrays her — in his case with deadly consequences.)

Comparison #3

Birgitte’s transformation is complete in the last episode when she commits the ultimate act of leadership: ditching her most trusted advisor and minister Bent Sejrø in order to safeguard her own position, recognising Bent’s own early advice to her that there is no room for friendship in politics.
(Just as Elizabeth dispenses with Richard Attenborough’s ailing Sir William Cecil to assert her own independence.)

Comparison #4

The final scene in Elizabeth is triumphantly memorable. Having proven her fitness to rule both to herself and to the sceptical nobility, she re-invents herself as the Virgin Queen dedicated solely to her subjects, a literal mask of plastered-on ceruse constructing a barrier between ruler and ruled, and concealing her true identity.
(Just as Birgitte shrugs off the sacrifice of her marriage, and transfigures herself into a maternal-warrior for the whole Danish nation.)

Both Elizabeth and Borgen reference Machiavelli’s timeless dilemma for any Prince — “it is better to be feared than loved” — mirroring the narrative arc travelled by each, their inevitable personal journey from desiring to be loved to needing to be feared.

But in one respect at least I’m fervently hoping the similarities between them cease… Because the sequel to Elizabeth was simply dire. So fingers crossed for Borgen II.