Elizabeth (1998)

D: Shekhar Kapur
S: Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston

Dark, brooding look at the ascension to power of Queen Elizabeth I of England which plays like a mediaeval Godfather; a study of the nature of power, the political machinations which bring it, and their human cost. Cate Blanchett (Oscar and Lucinda) excels in the lead role, playing the relatively innocent young woman who finds herself the centre of a war between Catholicism and Protestantism raging in the wake of her father Henry VIII's death and the pending death of her half sister Mary (Kathy Burke). She finds support from council member Sir William Cecil (Sir Richard Attenborough), though the sinister Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston) plans to win the throne for himself. Meanwhile she is protected by the Machiavelli-quoting Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), who is as quick with a dagger as with words. Under pressure to end the political uncertainty by marrying into the Royal houses of either France or Spain, she faces a difficult personal dilemma in the form of lover Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes).

Beautifully designed and outfitted, this film achieves a convincing tone and feel throughout which plunges us headfirst into a world of bloody deeds and treacherous plots in the mould of La Reine Margot. Buoyed by strong performances, Michael Hirst's script holds attention throughout, and rises to a climax which while derivative of The Godfather and Dangerous Liaisons (a peculiar marriage, admittedly), effectively caps the story of how a frightened young woman became the iron monarch known and revered in history. Director Shekhar Kapur (Bandit Queen) has been a little too generous with his camera movement however, which is often distracting and unnecessarily flashy for the subject at hand. A little overhead crane work goes a long way (witness the opening of Orson Welles' Othello), but this film delights in wandering around the gloomy Tudor corridors and torture chambers as if on a guided tour, never stopping to let the drama unfold and the actors really allow their characters' depths to emerge. For a while it seems stylish, but it quickly becomes irritating, and it frequently draws your attention to much to itself and away from the substance of what is going on. It's all very evocative, but it is less successful dramatically because of its excess of visual excitation.

In many ways this is a meditation on gender and power which is very much a product of the time in which it has been made rather than that in which it is set. Unable as we are to truly appreciate the nuances of a past situation in themselves, we tend to overlay historical subjects with contemporary concerns. This is exactly what happens here, and though it is not uninteresting, it does tend towards the trendy and ephemeral despite dealing with such heavyweight material. The film deals with the opposition between femininity and being female. While the status of the Queen is nominally undisputed, the unspoken and spoken irony is that in order for her reign to be legitimised, she must ally herself with a male, preferably one complete with a large enough kingdom to 'protect' England by swallowing it up (read: negate her femaleness by relegating her to the status of 'feminine' Queen to the 'masculine' King). Meanwhile while the virtues of gentility and beauty are sung in poetry, few take the young woman seriously and many actively plot her downfall. It is only by assuming the mantle of exaggerated purity (The Virgin Queen) that she eventually achieves stability (that, and having all of her major enemies beheaded and mounted on spikes), and consciously replaces the mythology of Catholicism (The Virgin Mary) with one of a new England united under the untouchable, all powerful Queen. Of course this does not happen until the end of the film, but it is centrally concerned with the process through which this self-imposed self-negation occurs.

On the whole the film is interesting and relatively involving. Blanchett is the definite trump card, and successfully holds the film together even when Kapur makes it like riding a merry go round while trying to focus on a face in the crowd. All of the leads work hard, and there is some surprising support, including Sir John Gielgud as The Pope and a wonderfully Latin-looking James Frain as the Spanish Ambassador. Most surprising of all, and amusing if not particularly good at it, is former football star Eric Cantona as the French Ambassador. Fanny Ardant makes an effective Mary of Guise. More convincing as a hyper-realistic revisioning of history than as political trope, it is best when portraying the shifting loyalties and half-heard conversations of conspirators. Rush makes a wonderfully ambiguous foil to Blanchett's oft-confounded Queen, lurking magnificently in the shadows throughout only to emerge at the climax to provide the impetus for Elizabeth's final decision. But it is frequently too obvious on the question of gender, ending as it does with what is, effectively the beginning of the story. We are, of course, presumed to know the legend which follows. The film hopes to question the basis of that legend by exploring what underlies it. This is all well and good, but it is not entirely obvious just how the masquerade of alabaster womanhood would have sustained her through the type of villainy and treachery the film has detailed. It is as if the point is contradicted by its making, a peculiar paradox perhaps indicative of the aims of the film itself.

Still, it is worthwhile for those with patience enough to endure its dizzying camerawork and able to survive a few graphic torture scenes, if only to observe Blanchett's splendid characterisation.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.