Elizabeth (1998)

Elizabeth (1998)
  • Time: 124 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama | History
  • Director: Shekhar Kapur
  • Cast: Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Joseph Fiennes, Christopher Eccleston, Vincent Cassel, Eric Cantona


This film details the ascension to the throne and the early reign of Queen Elizabeth the First, as played by Cate Blanchett. The main focus is the endless attempts by her council to marry her off, the Catholic hatred of her and her romance with Lord Robert Dudley.

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  • England, 1554. Henry VIII is dead. The country is divided. Catholic vs. Protestant. For now, a Catholic — Mary — sits on the throne. She is, however, childless. Unless she is with child, she will be succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth, daughter of the beheaded Anne Boleyn. And a Protestant.

    When Elizabeth begins, “Bloody Mary,” as the Queen has been dubbed due to her zealous efforts in eradicating all persons Protestant, has symptoms of pregnancy despite the fact that she and her husband, King Philip II of Spain, have been sexually estranged. The Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston) offers his winking congratulations but warns Mary (Kathy Burke) that there will always be threats to the throne so long as Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) is still alive.

    Mary dispatches her guards to arrest Elizabeth for treason. When we first sight the titian-haired alabaster beauty, she is out in the pastoral countryside dancing with her ladies-in-waiting and frolicking with her paramour, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes). The whole scene, brimming with color and sensuality, is in stark contrast to the gloom and doom of the royal realm. “Remember who you are,” Dudley whispers as Elizabeth is taken to the Tower of London to be interrogated until she “confesses” to her sins. Mary, having lost her child and sensing her own cancerous death, summons Elizabeth and asks her to promise to uphold the Catholic faith once she is ensconced on the throne. “When I am Queen, I promise,” Elizabeth vows, “to act as my conscience dictates.”

    November 1558. England is bankrupt, the army nonexistent. Elizabeth is crowned Queen. However, external and internal forces threaten to usurp the throne. Her chief adviser Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough) contends she must marry and produce an heir to ensure the throne’s security. As such, Elizabeth must accept the proposal of either King Philip, her half-sister’s widower, or the Duc d’Anjou (a lively Vincent Cassel), the comically decadent nephew of the crafty Mary of Guise (Fanny Ardant). But Elizabeth cannot deny her love for Dudley, who shares her bed to everyone’s knowledge. Still, the throne must not be attacked; everyone seems to have their own agenda in mind when advising her. To whom can she place her trust? How about Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), her Master of Spies who displays unswerving loyalty but who is not above a little murder or massacre to achieve his goals.

    It is not until the penultimate scene that one realizes how truly superb Rush’s performance is. After viewing his sterling work as Javert in Bille August’s Les Miserables did I myself overcome my dislike for him. His work in Shine, Oscar-winning though it was, struck me as monotonous and uninspired. As the shadowy Walsingham, Rush transforms into a figure of daunting. When he finally confronts Eccleston’s Duke of Norfolk, intense sparks are lit. Eccleston himself is a brilliant actor and his Duke is a character of such vainglorious egotism that death should be not proud to claim him. “Cut off my head and make me a martyr,” he boasts. “The people will remember it.” “No,” Walsingham replies. “The people will forget it.” He takes a step back and, during that step, you wait for him to stab the Duke or perhaps behead him on the spot. If that thought or feeling enters your head — and it will — it is due to Rush’s exemplary work.

    Fiennes doesn’t quite have the deeply rooted presence of older brother Ralph. Believe me, he’s wonderful and he hits a lovely poignancy in his final scene (“It’s no easy thing to be loved by the Queen. It would corrupt the soul of any man.”). But he doesn’t haunt. Blanchett, who costarred with Ralph in last year’s Oscar and Lucinda, is a marvel. She fully conveys Elizabeth’s hidden insecurities beneath the displayed strength. At first swayed by members of her Court, she gradually learns to speak for herself and her country. There’s a scene where she proposes a bill of religious uniformity to a gathering of wizened Lords. Initially, she stammers, trying to hold their attention. Then the headstrong young woman with the tongue-in-cheek wit emerges and, with Walsingham’s aid, triumphs in getting the bill passed. Blanchett surely establishes herself as a worthy descendant of previous onscreen Elizabeths, including Bette Davis (The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Virgin Queen) and Glenda Jackson (Mary, Queen of Scots and the BBC miniseries Elizabeth R).

    There was a rather extraordinary film several years ago called Bandit Queen directed by Shekhar Kapur. Raw and discomfiting, it told the true story of famed outlaw Phoolan Devi, a victim of mental, physical and sexual abuse who rises to become one of her country’s most revered and controversial figures. Like Devi, Elizabeth must deal with a male-dominated Court. The monarchy, at least, appears to have little prejudice for female rulers. Kapur directs assuredly and with an intelligent sense of style. Filmed on location in England, Elizabeth is a grand and resplendent production. I especially appreciated Alexandra Byrne’s costume design. Costumes for Elizabeth begin richly and become more muted and severe as the character transforms into the iconic figure immortalized in portraiture.

    The opportunity to see this transformation — from passionate young woman to Virgin Queen — is the selling point for the film. Much of Elizabeth depicts the constant war between her head and heart. “Her Majesty’s body and person are no longer her property. They belong to the State,” Sir William Cecil declares at one point and, indeed, it is rare to find any character truly alone. The castle is continually abuzz with rumors of sexual and political intrigues.

    Much has been made of Elizabeth’s moniker of “the Virgin Queen.” The film disputes its sexual connotation — she and Dudley are most definitely lovers. In the end, Elizabeth marries no one but the throne, choosing head over heart, and appears bewigged and face Kabuki white to an astounded Court. “What am I to do now?” she had asked Walsingham after all the blood had been shed. “Am I to be made of stone?” Walsingham directs her to a statue of the Virgin Mary: “They must be able to touch the divine here on earth.” And so she finally subjugates herself to the needs of England. She ruled for 44 years and her era is known as The Golden Age.

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