The first thing we see in Shekhar Kapur‘s Elizabeth (1998) is the burning of three “Protestant heretics” in the name of Queen Mary, Elizabeth‘s fervently Catholic sister. Their heads have been shaved–to the point that their scalps are bleeding–and they are desperately crying out to their God for salvation and a quick death, which the fire will most undoubtedly not give them. It is a brutal beginning to the film, but it sets the necessary tense, dark tone for the narrative and provides us with a good depiction of just how nasty and aggressive tensions were between the Catholics and Protestants in England shortly after Henry VIII‘s death. This is the social climate into which Elizabeth, an unabashed Protestant, ascends the throne.
And people think President Obama has it rough.
Before she is even crowned, Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) is in fact arrested for her Protestantism by the order of her sister, Mary I (Kathy Burke); after all, things between Our Lady Liz and the infamous “Bloody Mary” were anything but cordial. As Mary so bluntly puts it, the daughter of “that whore Anne Boleyn” will never be Queen. So much for foresight. We must remember that Old King Henry annulled his marriage to Mary’s mother, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry Elizabeth’s mother, the infamous Anne Boleyn, so Mary’s deep-seated hatred for the Other-Other Boleyn Girl and her progeny is at least understandable. Mary is also furious with Elizabeth because she has apparently been the center of a Protestant plot to overthrow the Catholic Queen, though if this truth extends any further than the mouths of Mary’s advisers, Elizabeth certainly had nothing to do with it and had no knowledge of what was happening. At least, this Elizabeth doesn’t. To be sure, when we first see her in the film, she is frolicking about with her hand-maidens and the dashing Robert Dudley, Lord of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes). A bright and upbeat moment like this in a film like Elizabeth can only survive so long, and indeed, not two minutes into her frolic, Elizabeth is arrested. Her walk to the Tower is depicted in an appropriately terrifying fashion: all the light and color from the previous scene is gone and is instead replaced by darkness and shadows; her happy maidens have been replaced by a desperate crowd, many of whom lay on the side of the road begging for help even as they are beaten by the soldiers escorting Elizabeth. Playtime is over, and Kapur makes no bones about depicting this. Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne was not the fairytale dream that little girls fantasize about but rather a waking nightmare, rife with murder and broken families, and the film remains brutally faithful to this.
Shortly after entering the Tower, Elizabeth is interrogated by a group of men. This is a key scene in the film for it foreshadows Elizabeth’s life after her sister dies and she is crowned Queen surrounded by men trying to get something out of her. Elizabeth truly was the center of a man’s world, as she reminds us so keenly in Judi Dench‘s portrayal of her in Shakespeare in Love: “I know something of a woman in a man’s profession. Yes, by God, I do know about that.” The rest of the film is spent depicting Elizabeth’s adjustment to this new “profession” as she transforms from the somewhat naive girl that frolics in the fields to the hardened Queen who orders secret assassinations of political rivals and swears off a life of love and happiness in order to secure her power. It does not exactly play out like a tragedy, though we can be fairly certain by the end of the film that the happy maiden is dead and the Virgin Queen has taken her place.
Among the many stellar technical aspects of this film is the acting. There are no unbelievable or melodramatic portrayals here, and certainly, melodrama could easily be evoked in a story filled with broken families, assassination attempts, and lost love. I cannot imagine another actress doing as much justice or bringing as much credibility to the role of young Elizabeth as Cate Blanchett does here. Observe, for instance, the scene in which she practices in a mirror what she will say to an assembly of Bishops who all seemingly want to see her out of power: breathlessly and in a near-panic, she stumbles over her words and even growls at the mirror at one point. We see a vulnerability here that would otherwise be overlooked by a less practiced actress. Elizabeth, after all, was only human, and Blanchett does a marvelous job of bringing that humanity to the screen.
Also of note is Richard Attenborough, whose portrayal of William Cecil reveals a man who is at once sympathetic to Elizabeth’s various emotions and yet firmly grounded in what he believes is best for his country. For instance, despite the fact that he sees that Elizabeth is hopelessly in love with Robert Dudley, he attempts to steer her away from him–even coldly, at times–in order to get her to marry a foreign monarch like Henri, Duc d’Anjou (Vincent Cassel) to cement her seat on the throne. In the end, we see he has both Elizabeth’s and the country’s best interests at heart, most likely because he doesn’t differentiate between the two: Elizabeth is England. Attenborough makes Cecil walk the thin line between sympathy for Elizabeth and love of country effortlessly, and though he is at times antagonistic to the passion and romance in the narrative, we never truly dislike him because he feels like a grandfather, and grandfathers almost always know best. Certainly, had Cecil not been by Elizabeth’s side to ward off Dudley, we might not have ended up with the Virgin Queen, and oh, what a different world we would live in if that were the case.
Despite a good show of performances from the entire cast, the actor who truly steals the show is Geoffrey Rush as Francis Walsingham. The real-life Walsingham is remembered as being the “spymaster” of the Elizabethan court, for he conducted espionage for the Queen which undoubtedly led to the deaths of several of Elizabeth’s political enemies. In the film, Walsingham goes as far as to take Mary of Guise (Fanny Ardant), a direct antagonist of Elizabeth and her Protestant court, to bed and leave her mysteriously dead the next morning. Unfortunately, this is not how it happened in real life, but Rush brings such credibility to his role as the spymaster that we believe without question that it could have happened. He depicts Walsingham as being a dark, untrustworthy character who constantly profiles the people around him in order to sort out his allies from those he’ll have to murder. When we watch Rush speak to others on-screen, we can almost see the wheels turning in his head as his character decides whether a person could be useful or be a hindrance. We frequently see him lurking in the shadows or in the background, keeping a perceptive eye on those who could bring an end to Elizabeth’s power–and by extension, his own. Rush doesn’t allow us to trust Walsingham, but he does at least make us happy that Walsingham is on Elizabeth’s side.
The only problems I found with the acting come from two otherwise terrific actors: John Gielgud and Joseph Fiennes. Gielgud does a splendid job depicting Pope Pius V, the pope who officially excommunicated the “heretical” Elizabeth from the [Catholic] Church, but we see far too little of him–quite unfortunate since this was his last film. Fiennes’ role, on the other hand, is overshadowed by his other 1998 role: William Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love (which also features Queen Elizabeth as well as Fiennes and Rush). I could not help but see Dudley and think, “What’s Will doing frolicking in the fields with Elizabeth?” This problem arises, I think, from the fact that he plays Dudley almost exactly as he plays Shakespeare: desperately melancholic and heartbroken. But even this may not be Fiennes’ fault since both the Dudley character and the Shakespeare character are written to be that way; after all, how many ways can one portray melancholy and heartbreak?
Also of interest in this film is its visual aspect. Kapur, an Indian director, dresses the Elizabethan characters and sets–usually so drab and depressing, which may not be entirely accurate despite the somber atmosphere that pervaded those times–in bright colors, particularly reds and oranges, which are certainly characteristic of his native country. Regardless of the English-Indian culture clash, the color schemes work and add much flavor to the film. Indeed, with such dark subject matter spread ubiquitously throughout the rest of the film, it may have been a tad too gloomy without Kapur’s masterful use of the vibrant colors.
Elizabeth concludes much as it begins: with the shearing of hair and a religious declaration. This time around, however, Elizabeth is bobbing her hair not because she is being forced to, but because she is choosing to: she is assuming the role of the Virgin Queen. When last we see her, she looks much like she does in the “Darnley Portrait“, complete with the white make-up and highly ornamental headdress (though with Cate Blanchett’s much prettier face). Surprisingly, Kapur chose the “Introitus” movement from Mozart’s Requiem to accompany this scene, but the anachronism works, for we are, after all, watching the death of the young, naive, and romantic Elizabeth and the rebirth of the “heavenly” (at least in appearance) Virgin Queen. It is a poignant and spiritual ending to a film so saturated in religious fervor and opinions.
Some critics have attacked this film for being “anti-Catholic,” but I don’t think that’s really Kapur’s fault, for the film’s subject ultimately was anti-Catholic in real-life, at least doctrinely speaking. Rest assured that this film sets out to do nothing more than historically depict the extreme lengths that one of the world’s greatest leaders had to resort to in order to protect the best interests of her country. And without a doubt, Elizabeth achieves its goal.