WFTB Score: 16/20
The plot: Princess Elizabeth of England needs courage and good fortune to survive the bloody reign of her Catholic half-sister Mary. However, Mary’s death only slightly improves Elizabeth’s prospects, as her kingdom is impoverished and threatened from all sides. The Queen’s advisors all believe she needs to make a politic marriage; but if she is to give her heart to any man, it will be to her long-term lover Lord Robert Dudley.
England in 1554 is no place to be if you’re a Protestant, since ’Bloody’ Queen Mary (Kathy Burke) is all for burning heretics. The threat goes double for Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett), whom the childless Queen considers a rival to the throne. Mary tasks the ambitious Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston) to find treachery in Elizabeth, and she is indeed arrested and sent to the tower; but she is allowed to leave and resume her passionate love affair with Lord Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), only to return to the court as Queen when Mary dies.
In the eyes of the Court, especially Council advisor Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough), Elizabeth’s reign is in constant peril whilst she remains unmarried, and since the French are camped in Scotland, the Court seem to have a point. Ambassadors to the Courts of both Spain and France (James Frain and Eric Cantona) push the claims of (respectively) King Phillip and the Duc D’Anjou (Vincent Cassel), but a visit by the Duc proves disastrous.
With Dudley also proving an ineligible suitor, Elizabeth turns her attention to parlous matters of state and the threat of assassination emanating from – among other places – Rome; to do this and still appear whiter than white, she relies on the quiet but ruthless machinations of her trusted eminence grise, Francis Walshingham (Geoffrey Rush).
The difficulty faced by any film based on historical events is that it has to balance the demands of telling its story dramatically, and in a narratively interesting framework, against the need to retain some historical accuracy – your audience will scoff if you’ve gone against the facts and invented too much of the story. And there are many who do scoff at the inaccuracies in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth, getting their knickers in an enormous twist in the process (if you want examples, Sir William was a much younger man than portrayed here, and Elizabeth was well aware of Dudley’s ‘secret’).
My feeling is that nobody complains about the dramatic licence Shakespeare takes with his histories, and why should they here, since the result is still an excellent film. Whatever the deviations from history, the events of Elizabeth feel as though they could have happened that way; nobody changes motivation unexpectedly, or acts without good reason, meaning that the story makes sense to itself. And Kapur unfolds the constantly shifting intrigues with great skill, creating an atmosphere of peril around Elizabeth that she confronts through sacrifice and courage – as she says herself, she becomes her father’s daughter. Interestingly, there’s a Thatcherite quality about her dealings with those around her which makes us consider her role as a woman in power.
Elizabeth explores the Queen’s dilemmas in love and in ruling the country, complicated by the link between the two; and while it debunks the concept of the Virgin Queen as so much propaganda, we see her choosing an unexpected path as she weds herself to her country. The viewer is invited into the heart of Elizabeth’s and England’s turmoil (for example, the grisly battle scene in Scotland), and from start to finish the film is violent and sexy, political and lyrical: in other words, everything The Other Boleyn Girl isn’t.
Elizabeth also benefits from some wonderful acting, chiefly an honest, raw performance from Cate Blanchett. Blanchett’s monarch is at times immensely unsure of herself, and some commentators have decried the notion that Elizabeth would exhibit such weakness. However, the idea that she had to overcome private anxieties, set aside her true emotions, is appealing on a human level and Blanchett works wonders to convey her emotions in gestures both small and grand. Her final transformation into the sexless, marble-like Virgin Queen is extraordinary, though musical pedants may consider Elgar and Mozart an anachronistic touch every bit as vulgar as the pop inserted into Marie Antoinette.
Blanchett’s multi-faceted performance is admirably supported by Fiennes (handsome but fundamentally weak), Rush (terrifically devious), Eccleston (solid and true to himself) and Attenborough (venerable), as well as Emily Mortimer as her chief Lady-in-Waiting, Kat Ashley (Kelly Macdonald also pops up and meets a tragic end). Star names also feature in minor roles, not least John Gielgud in a fleeting cameo as the Pope, his last role in a feature film, and Daniel Craig as the Vatican’s would-be assassin (not for the last time, getting tortured for his troubles).
There are also a few curious casting decisions, such as Wayne Sleep, Lily Allen (then unknown, of course), and Angus Deayton; but it‘s Eric Cantona who sticks out, even now his footballing days are long gone. The fact that Cantona largely speaks in a foreign tongue does help a bit, but compared with the French actors on show (Fanny Ardant, Vincent Cassel) it’s obvious that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. However, while he’s not very good, he’s not ruinously bad and is no more than a minor distraction.
In other facets, Elizabeth shows itself to have majestic production values. The locations and sets are fabulously sumptuous yet authentic in feel, as are the dresses and other costumes. The camerawork is fluid, and Michael Hirst (who went on to pen the sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age and The Tudors) provides an intelligent script which feels neither jarringly modern nor stiflingly Elizabethan. The only false notes are struck by Cassel’s zany, cross-dressing Duc D’Anjou: he adds humour to the film (Elizabeth certainly has a laugh about him), but his scenes appear out of place when there are life and death decisions being made elsewhere.
It may well re-arrange events and embroider characters for dramatic gain, but Elizabeth – like The King’s Speech more recently* – does an impressive job of bringing across both the events and the people who shaped them without feeling sensationalist or artificial. Frequently dark in tone and colour, it’s a heavy-going film and not one you’d want to watch twice in quick succession: but in contrast to the fluff that has passed for historical drama in more recent times, it’s a minor masterpiece. Good Queen Bess!
NOTES: The moral? If you’re a British Monarch in need, call Geoffrey Rush.