In 1553, six years after the death of Henry VIII, England is ruled by his sickly young son Edward VI. When the Duke of Northumberland learns that the boy is dying, he orchestrates a coup that will keep Edward's half-sister Mary — a Catholic — from ascending the throne and abolishing all the benefits of the Protestant Reformation in England.

The scheme involves arranging a marriage between his son Guilford and the 15-year-old great niece of Henry VIII, Lady Jane Grey. She is a scholarly teenager and a stouthearted Protestant. Lady Jane is stunned when her husband, who up to this point in his life has been a dissolute libertine, turns out to be a sensitive young man outraged by the poverty and injustice in their country.

Following the death of Edward VI, Lady Jane becomes queen on the basis of a paper signed by the king. But instead of turning into a pawn of the Duke of Northumberland and the Royal Council, Queen Jane institutes some bold financial and social reforms — including the restoration of land to farmers who lost their property during the Reformation. When she sends the Duke to put down an insurrection by Mary and her followers, he is defeated, and her nine-day reign ends. She and Guilford are imprisoned. Given the chance to save herself by renouncing her Protestant faith and converting to Catholicism, she chooses death instead.

Trevor Nunn directs this serious drama with a respect for history, the idealism of youth, and the purity of true love. Helena Bonham Carter moves convincingly through several different stages in the short life of Lady Jane — from scholar to enchanted wife to zealous reformer and finally to religious martyr. Cary Elwes is excellent as Guilford Dudley, her loving husband who dreams of a better world. Other members of the cast, many of them members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, put in top-drawer performances. Especially fine are John Wood as the Duke of Northumberland and Michael Hordern as Dr. Feckenham, a Catholic whose theological disagreements with Lady Jane do not prevent him from respecting her character and the courage of her convictions.