English Title: Elizabeth
Country of Origin: Britain
Studio: Polygram, Working Title/Universal Pictures
Director: Shekhar Kapur
Screenplay: Michael Hirst
Cinematographer: Remi Adefarasin
Editor: Jill Bilcock
Runtime: 124 minutes
Upon the death of Mary I, her half-sister Elizabeth – daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn – ascends to the throne. Elizabeth's position initially seems untenable, with the Catholic Church unable to acknowledge a Protestant monarch and allies of France determined to attack England. She is urged to consider a suitor – including the future King of France – to consolidate her claim to the throne. Elizabeth instead embarks on an affair with her childhood sweetheart Lord Dudley, a liaison that is no secret to the royal court, but she discovers that Dudley is married and prepares to cut him out of her life. When it emerges that many of her supposedly loyal courtiers are involved in a plot to betray and depose her, Elizabeth enlists the aid of the ruthless Francis Walsingham to flush out the traitors and conspirators. As her enemies begin to fall, war with France looms. Elizabeth must complete her transformation from shy country girl to ‘The Virgin Queen’ of history who will lead the Armada naval battles and forsake all others for her beloved England.
With its setting in a well-known moment in British history and an impressive cast – from Blanchett to the likes of Sir John Gielgud and Sir Richard Attenborough – Elizabeth initially seems a fairly typical British costume drama. Whilst the film does showcase gorgeous set pieces and sumptuous costume designs, director Shekhar Kapur and screenwriter Michael Hirst crafted a film that revels in dense political intrigue and character intimacy, even though it takes quite a few liberties with historical accuracy. The slow transformation of Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) from the demure pawn of political games to the powerful head of state is fascinating to behold. The machinations and divisions within her royal court have a counterpoint to Elizabeth’s internal struggle between her duty to herself and to her state. Much is made of her gender (though the film avoids crass and easy gender politics) with all the supposed (in the minds of the royal court) ‘female failings’ pointing to why she cannot be allowed to rule England.
The price of power and devotion to her country is that Elizabeth has to transcend any notion of being free to follow her own desires – she is told at one point that ‘Her Majesty’s body and person are no longer her own property. They belong to the state.’ But the film also hints that the ruling power was also a divine one (as in regal doctrine). Moments such as Elizabeth receiving the news that Mary is dead and taking possession of the royal ring are imbued with an almost mythic significance with the screen flashing to white; the climax of the film sees Elizabeth draw upon a statue of the Virgin Mary as inspiration for subjugating her personal needs for the greater good of England. Yet this notion of divinity is set apart from ideas of organized religion – Elizabeth is shown to be confused by the question of religion, placating Catholics and Protestants out of necessity rather than religious faith or dogma.
There are sly moments of humour as Elizabeth practises a speech that she will give to a room full of unfriendly Bishops, and one cannot help thinking of modern politicians doing the same. Elizabeth I, The Virgin Queen, has become a legendary historical figure but, the film suggests, all legends have a fallible and very real person behind them.
Author of this review: Laurence Boyce
Peer reviewer: Laurence Boyce