“It is a masterful exploration of the rich and fascinating world of Elizabethan England; the story of the Virgin Queen, the court’s rude luxury, and the atmospheric tones of life behind the castle walls scramble off the screen like deep hidden secrets of the past just waiting to be revealed.” – taken from the original Cinemaphile review of “Elizabeth”
In a key moment of dreamy perfection, a scarred monarch stares back at her reflection in the mirror and announces, unequivocally, that she has “become a virgin.” What is she suggesting? To understand the implication, one must comprehend the veracity of her journey up to that one moment. In 16th century England, political unrest has paved the way for violent religious persecution, and a Catholic rule is threatened when its current queen, Mary Tudor, becomes terminally ill before producing an heir. All thoughts of the crown falling to her sister Elizabeth, a Protestant, inspire proclamations of damnation, and her almost childlike naivety serves to create an emotional current that amplifies the exploits of her devout enemies. But scrawled across this face of intense consideration is the soul of a woman bound to unwavering endurance, and as her command over the country is tested by quiet betrayals occurring all around her, she comes to see this moment – this one revelation – as the only means of rising above a difficult world of violence and suffering. That she has to discover the necessity of this impulse out of terrible heartbreak (and murderous plots) is as sobering as it is tragic.
Many movies have been made about famous names in the grind of the past, but Shekhar Kapur’s “Elizabeth” is more mindful of the human element of its protagonist than nearly all films that came before it. Here is a remarkable and resonating story that sees a young woman not as a figure born into power, but a simple dreamer whose royal heritage is thrust on her in a moment of uncertainty, where she is given little room to exercise it before being exploited by political powers determined to see her destroyed. More than fifteen years after the movie landed in our sphere of awareness, not a single quality has been diminished by time; it still looks and feels as fresh today as it did in 1998, and the mysteries that move between shadowy corridors and unspoken intrigue have all but filled the screen with a sense of cerebral resonance. And standing at the center of this elaborate excursion, of course, is Cate Blanchett’s prophetic performance as the Virgin Queen, an endeavor so riveting that it endures as a watershed moment in the possibilities of historical personifications.
What inspired the filmmakers? What drove their conviction, their sheer sense of audacity, to make a movie about a famous British monarch and expose her to the insecure nature of human feeling before raising her up to a divine purpose? The subject of Elizabeth’s rule has always been a source of divisiveness, but little has been said of the woman in her early moments of power. The movie opens with almost no indication that this will be her destiny, either; in her earliest scenes, she is seen frolicking in the company of a fetching would-be suitor (Joseph Fiennes) in an open countryside, and is alarmed to discover that her sister has accused her of treason to the crown. Would most films about this subject have bothered peering back into such moments, especially if it meant humanizing a figure that seemed so celestial in nature? Seldom has a retelling of history been so driven by passionate undertones, and yet been so thoughtful to see its subjects trapped within crippling vulnerabilities.
Blanchett and Kapur were no doubt kindred spirits in that regard. When “Elizabeth” was made, each had been attached (in their respective professions) to only one film each prior to the undertaking (she to “Oscar & Lucinda,” and he to “Bandit Queen”). Their union on set must have been an act of fate; because each possessed a unique talent that had yet to garner notable exposure, their synergy, we sense, came from a place of purity. Cate was no doubt sought for the role because of her stirring presence (and her strong profile), but what inspired the studio to hire an Indian director for a story about an English head of state? If the obscure “Bandit Queen” provides any clues, they emerge from technique and pacing. While costume dramas are often relegated to cheap exercises in the vein of Masterpiece Theater, this was a director who saw the material in framework of surprising depth. Not a single moment in the end result is without some level of careful precision, defined further by a production design and sense of photography that mask the events behind tapestries and windows that seem like architectural prisons.
The film opens by in ominous fashion. In 1554, the Catholics of England are head-first in a social war with the Protestants, who are being murdered by their oppressors for denying authority of the Vatican. The opening scene, an instance where one such group of “heretics” is condemned to burning, plays directly into the bleakness of this reality. Their pain and suffering is mirrored by the ominous nature surrounding Mary Tudor’s final days; at first thought to be pregnant with a child, her consorts gather around her in rooms of shadows and isolation, content to simply observe their pouty-faced ruler as pain in her belly suggests a life-threatening illness. What will come of her likely passage to the afterlife, though? The reality is clear through the worrisome glances exchanged between others: Elizabeth, Henry VIII’s illegitimate daughter, is next in line for the throne, and her succession would spell certain doom for Catholic authority in a country already rattled by uncertainty.
The early realities are reflected in actions of constant threat. Elizabeth, so fair and nonchalant, is accused of conspiring against her sister in a murderous plot, and is taken to the Tower of London. A trio of bishops and consorts circle her in tense interrogations, hoping to make her crack. But why would she confess to something she had no knowledge of, much less any inkling to participate in? The flimsiness of the accusation is exemplified in a scene she shares with her dying sister, who belittles and then warns Elizabeth about her impending death warrant, but is unable to bring herself to sign it – no, not even in her last moments, despite the angry words of the hot-headed Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston) as he looms over hear deathbed: “will you leave your kingdom to a heretic?!”
The succession of the young Elizabeth is met with defined boundaries drawn in both religious factions. The Catholics – notably, those still in her court – move through chambers with urgency and are content to remain silent as if hiding menacing secrets. The Protestants return from afar in droves, and those that arrive in her domain – notably, advisers played by Sir Richard Attenborough and Geoffrey Rush – offer insights that contrast the two possible directions she could take in her rule. Her advisors, meanwhile, paint a portrait of a grim inheritance: England is so broke and without allies that it seems weakened beyond repair, and foreign enemies may be eager to acquire it. Because she has no foresight to play political games, her conviction is easily manipulated by the words of those in her sphere, and in an early scene she reluctantly agrees to send troops out to face a French resistance in the countryside – a decision, alas, that is met with utter catastrophe.
The movie is not necessarily about outcomes, but about the implications that inspire them. Because political games in those eras were often inspired by mad acts of violence and intimidation (usually in the name of God), there is a sense in watching these characters that they are all compacted under the weight of intense mental pressure, even before they are required to make impulsive decisions. The greatness of “Elizabeth” is that it also makes eager strides to show a woman coming to this realization while still being enamored with the matters of her heart; from early scenes well into the second act, the majority of her political ignorance is undermined further by the distraction of Lord Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), who lacks the discretion necessary to keep their affair free of potential exploitation. In bothering to touch on this material, the movie gives its monumental main character a relatable context, which serves to intensify those final scenes when she must abolish all traces of feeling for the sake of her reign.
The screenplay by Michael Hirst is not one of historical accuracy, but that was never the point. Because both he and Kapur see their endeavors from a place of dramatic intensity, they take liberties with details that inform the movie’s mood. Furthermore, their departure is exemplified through several key performances. Blanchett, who would go on to become the best actress of her generation, is so pure and unrestrained in the title role that it seems all the more brilliant in hindsight of what was to come; her Elizabeth is intensely sympathetic, and yet so perceptive that every stage of her growth fits perfectly within the movie’s framework. Eccleston as the cunning Duke of Norfolk, meanwhile, is remarkable; while his brief encounters with Elizabeth contain muted pleasantries, his isolated scenes are not overshot by harshness, and he is as focused on conviction as he is paralyzing stares of resentment. Attenborough, who would retire after making this film, went out on a high note; his Sir William Cecil is good-natured but urgent, and his use in the film adds a note of heritage that serves to heighten the importance of his advice. And Geoffrey Rush as the secretive Sir Francis Walsingham is beyond astonishing; without pushing himself to overzealous screen-mugging, he hits all of the subtle notes necessary of his role, and we don’t waver from the implication that his actions are just as deadly for others as they are necessary for his queen, whom he has sworn unwavering loyalty to.
The notion that all of these qualities exist on a canvas of immense technical artistry only adds to our desire to watch on. The movie’s most striking shots are those that sweep around rooms and parlors; because there is scarcely a scene that does not contain an entire ensemble of observers closing in on the queen, the camera is content to stroll through the action without remaining stationary, as if it were an active participant in the ongoing espionage. By the same token, the stationary moments are usually made so to indicate her growing presence, such as a scene where she addresses a divided parliament in order to sever England’s ties with the Vatican. The sequence bounces between still shots of her on a platform and her audience of bishops swaying nervously below, and the most brilliant highlight in this arrangement is a wide-pan image where we see Elizabeth’s red figure anchored at the center of a beam of light from high above the rafters. That any of this is framed so precisely goes to emphasize the whole point of Kapur’s artistic sensibility: Elizabeth may have been a mere woman, but she was destined to seek perfection, and the visuals seem to provide calculated foreshadowing.
Kapur’s favorites visual touches, however, were those relentless high-angle shots; by peering down on the heads of his characters, this gave the film a sense that some divine being was looking down on them in silent judgment (an admission he makes in the DVD’s commentary track). Just as much as he was inspired by the unspoken betrayals running rampant in “The Godfather,” however, he and his artists also took cues from other sources. The overhead shots are actually an homage to Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” another film about religious unrest. Cinematographer Remi Adefarasin’s penchant for sweeping past figures in constant motion is a trait borrowed from the likes of Brian De Palma and François Truffaut. The use of darkness and light to convey the beginning and end of important passages of time was one of the great staples of Andrei Tarkovsky. And the sweeping musical flourishes that are used to carry us through a wordless climax of arrests and assassinations go to the heart of early Terrence Malick, who used similar tactics to tell fragments of story in “Days of Heaven.” All artists sometimes borrow excessively from their inspirations, but Kapur was smart enough to use them in the backdrop of his own distinctive spin. So striking were his touches, in fact, that they set a clear tone for the ambitious career that was to follow (which also included a sequel, “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” and as of this writing may yet inspire a third film about the monarch).
I first saw “Elizabeth” at the start of my writing about the movies, and was so enamored by the elaborate nature of the material that I referred to it as “the first masterpiece I ever saw as a film critic.” In the passage of time – and in the perspective of older age – there is no denying how thoughtful a film it remains, and how curiously new it seems every time it is viewed. Though the film garnered notable praise when it first premiered and even went on to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award in 1999, that enthusiasm nowadays has been subdued by the presence of an endless array of films about British monarchs, including “The Queen” and “The King’s Speech.” But one must not be modest about proclamations in the act of reflection. This is the best film ever made about the subject of a British ruler. And despite the cinema’s trend to erode the examples of the past, here is a movie that persists in the mind like a fine gemstone: carefully cut by the hands of a dedicated artist, and done in a manner that transcends the nature of period films to drift off into the bastions of obscurity.
Written by DAVID KEYES
To read the original Cinemaphile.org review of "Elizabeth" published in 1998, click here.