MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth I), Geoffrey Rush (Sir Francis Walsingham), Christopher Eccleston (Duke of Norfolk), Joseph Fiennes (Robert Dudley), Richard Attenborough (Sir William Cecil), Fanny Ardant (Mary of Guise), Kathy Burke (Queen Mary Tudor), Eric Cantona (Monsieur de Foix)
Right from the start, Indian director Shekhar Kapur lets us know that his first English-language film, "Elizabeth," is no Masterpiece Theater or Merchant-Ivory costume production. The film opens in a grisly, dank, rat-infested dungeon where several guards are shaving the heads of three Protestant "heretics," taking bits and pieces of their scalps along with the hair. The camera then follows them out into an open courtyard where they are burned at the stake before jeering crowds. Kapur films the horrific burning with an emphasis on the gruesome physicality of the act. He doesn't discreetly stay at a distance; rather, he spins the camera directly over the pyre, giving the audience a stomach-churning overhead view of the flaming violence.
This opening sequence is both cinematically exhilarating and difficult to watch. That Kapur does not maintain this gusto throughout the entire film is unfortunate, but still not much of a fault. "Elizabeth" bogs down at times, and nothing in the film comes close to the exquisite horror of these opening frames; but it is, nonetheless, a bold, fascinating film about one woman's journey from being an innocent young girl to the dominating matriarch on an entire country amidst political conspiracies, religious wars, sexual scandals, and bloody conflicts with foreign nations.
Protestant-born Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) comes to power in 1558, after the death of her Roman Catholic half-sister, Queen Mary of Tudor (Kathy Burke). At the young age of 25, Elizabeth is handed an England almost in ruins: empty treasuries, a violent division between Catholics and Protestants, and threats of invasion from both Spain and France. At first, Elizabeth relies on the advice of the experienced members of her council, especially her chief minister, Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough). However, because Elizabeth is Protestant and Queen Mary had reinstated Catholicism as the country's official religion, there is great deal of resentment toward her taking the throne. Chief among her potential enemies is the Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston), who would like nothing better than to see her removed from the throne.
As the narrative progresses and Elizabeth gains confidence and experience, she begins to rely more and more on herself, rather than on her advisors. Nevertheless, always close at hand is her strongest supporter, Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), who is the perfect embodiment of the man who will do anything to advance his ideology. Aside from Elizabeth, Walsingham is the most complex character in the film; Rush plays him as a fiercely intelligent, loyal, patient, but ultimately murderous man. And yet, his character retains sympathy and respect simply because he is so single-minded in his purpose, while others around him are weak and easily swayed.
As a film, "Elizabeth" is constantly engaged in a balancing act between intimate human relationships and large political conspiracies. Much of the film follows the evolving relationship between Elizabeth and her lover, Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes). Elizabeth wants to marry him, but she cannot because politics has decreed that she must marry royalty, especially royalty from one of England's enemies in order to soothe international tensions. Her advisors are constantly barraging her with offers of marriage from the King of Spain or from a French duke, all of which serves to emphasize how impersonal her life has become. As Sir William Cecil puts it, she no longer belongs to herself, but rather she now belongs to England.
"Elizabeth" is a sumptuously visual film that masterfully navigates between the magisterial grandeur of royal life and the dark, shadowy netherworlds of violence and betrayal always seething beneath that veneer of pomp and splendor. Cinematographer Remi Adefarasin captures both the beauty and the ugliness of life in the late sixteenth century; for every beautiful montage of a ball or pageant, there is a scene that takes place in a filthy dungeon or on a body-strewn battlefield.
Holding the film together at its center is a fine performance by Cate Blanchett ("Oscar and Lucinda"). Without her strong portrayal of a woman constantly in metamorphosis, the film would be flat and uninvolving. Despite all the visual elegance the film offers, it is more than anything the story of a woman forced to change in order to assume the responsibilities of the crown. The two contrasting images of Elizabeth at the beginning and end of the film tell it all. Elizabeth is first introduced as a frolicking young woman in a grassy field, playfully flirty and naive. The film ends on a freeze-frame that fades to black, showing her with her face painted white in all her royal import, having just declared herself the "Virgin Queen" whose only husband is England. From a girl to a monarch who lasted on the throne for more than 45 years.
Still, "Elizabeth" is not quite the human story is strives to be. The script by Michael Hirst is a bit murky at times, and some of the plot points are either underdeveloped or glossed over, especially in explaining the complicated political conspiracies. The relationship between Elizabeth and Dudley never generates the heat it needs in order to sustain the amount of time the film spends on it. When Elizabeth finally rejects Dudley for good, there is no great feeling of loss for either of them.
However, "Elizabeth" is an effective portrayal of the depths to which humans can sink in order to protect what they believe is right. As depicted in the film--starting with aforementioned burning of Protestants and ending with a gruesome torture of a Catholic priest--the behavior of both religious extremists is reprehensible. Yet, neither is made out to be worse than the other because they are both capable of atrocities in the name of protecting their beliefs. That they both believe in the same God, as Elizabeth tries to point out numerous times, is constantly swept aside because they can't see through their own prejudices. In their own way, the religious figures in the film represent everything that is both strong and horrible in the human spirit, and it is here that the film finds its greatest emotional success.
©1998 James Kendrick