Directed by Shekhar Kapur
Starring Cate Blanchett, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush
e-Royalty Rating: 4 Stars
The film Elizabeth opens with shots taken from above as if we are watching from heaven. Perhaps, by guiding viewer consciousness in this direction, film director Shekar Kapur meant to underscore the once commonly held belief that monarchy was divinely appointed by God himself (or herself, if you like.) Whatever his intent, Kapur commands our attention by directing us to the unexpected from the very start of this somewhat frilly interpretation of how a little red haired princess became queen of England and held her own through tumultuous times.
Kapur sets the political tone and the backdrop to Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne by showing how Queen Mary (Elizabeth’s half sister) tried to undo Henry VIII’s newly established Anglican Church by forcing all Protestants into hiding for fear of public burning. Thematically, these short but essential early scenes explore the tension between half-sisters born of different mothers, one Catholic, one Protestant, between the desire for power and the will to be the queen. Mary has had her sister arrested, and for a moment, Elizabeth is imprisoned and fears for her life.
In the next moment, Mary is mortally ill, Elizabeth is free and now dances in a garden with her childhood friend, Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes). A beautifully shot sequence, it floats to its audience on layers of cinematic meaning. At the mythical level, it is the mating dance. At the political level it represents the delicate balance that must be maintained at court by a young royal expecting to rule England. At the spiritual level, the dance between the two innocents represents the purity and sweetness of young love. It represents justice, too, in its way, as the film takes the side of religious freedom, represented by the beauty, Elizabeth. Her sister Mary, representing the Catholic stronghold which would make all of England a Catholic state again, is portrayed as the ugly duck.
Upon Mary’s sudden death, Princess Elizabeth becomes queen, and the coronation scenes are shot upward instead of downward, so that, as viewers, we rise with Elizabeth to the seat of power. All of this takes place within the movie’s first half hour or so, depicting what really is the director’s fantasy. Kapur readily admits his vision is just that—spelled out to raise the story to the level of myth.
To do that, Kapur depicts a fictional love affair between Elizabeth and Dudley. Now, historians are in general agreement that Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley never slept together, even though they were the closest of friends throughout Elizabeth’s life. Kapur is asking, “what if they had been lovers?” Under that lens, Joseph Fiennes’ lovelorn interpretation of Dudley will break your heart. His hysterical love for Elizabeth rises above the physical, yet Fiennes successfully portrays a Dudley that leaves one guessing, too: Was he pining for the monarch herself or for her power? To act out a psychological question like this takes a bit of genius.
Cate Blanchett’s body type and coloring make her a wonderful physical model of Gloriana, so it’s hard to say if it’s her look or her acting that animates this version of Elizabeth. Blanchett’s stylized young monarch is both playful and willful and she plays passion with unrestrained fire, so maybe it’s both. In costumes set off by artful hairstyling and makeup, she looks so convincing that her performance tends to get lost in the director’s representation. Even so it will be hard to accept new actors in this role, particularly since Blanchett also plays the queen in Kapur’s sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Years.
However you see her, Blanchett is a brilliant actress, period. If she seems a little overwrought, it is because the director has made her so. He heaps on so much stuff—such dialogue, such violence and gentility by turns—then there’s the makeup, the hairstyling—the gorgeous gowns made from yards and yards of otherworldly fabric. Since English monarchs and their people believed that kings and queens were divine, Kapur’s choices are justifiable in this sense. But the resulting image is overflowing—like a cup that is full to the brim. You have to lean over it and sip the tea until you can pick up the cup and hold it to your lips. Kapur’s vision is not quite that full, though it stops just short.
What may seem inexcusable to some is that he adds one final thing that almost ruins the whole overflowing character of the movie. He adds the glare and opacity of totally outrageous lies—that poisoned dress scene, for example? Never happened. There’s also quite a bit of dialogue that simply does not have the ring of authenticity.
Still, Elizabeth is a beautiful and well-made film. No, it isn’t true to historical fact, but to paraphrase Roger Ebert’s 1998 review, ‘if it isn’t true, maybe it should be.’ In the capable hands of Fiennes and Blanchette, the portrayal of friendship and love between Dudley and the Queen simply validate Kapur’s wildly romantic styling. The overall effect is a confection of entertainment, topped off by three sauces: a wonderful score featuring works by Thomas Tallis and Richard Elgar; brilliant cinematography by Remi Adefarisin; and sensual art direction by the incorrigible John Myhre and Peter Howitt.
Finally, this review would be remiss if it didn’t include the names of some great actors in supporting roles. Elizabeth includes the final performance of Sir John Gielgud; then, there’s Geoffrey Rush, the consummate Richard Attenborough who died this year, and Christopher Eccleston. Fanny Ardant fills the screen in her role as Mary of Guise. Kathy Burke as Queen Mary and Emily Mortimer as Kat Ashley are not as large, but just as fine. Should you rent, stream, or own Elizabeth on DVD? Definitely.