Principal Cast : Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, David Attenborough, Joseph Fiennes, Richard Attenborough, Christopher Eccleston, Kathy Burke, Fanny Ardant, Vincent Cassel, Eric Cantona, Emily Mortimer, Kelly Macdonald, John Gielgud, Daniel Craig, James Frain, Edward Hardwicke, Jamie Foreman, Terence Rigby, Angus Deayton, Alfie Allen, Lily Allen, Amanda Ryan, Kenny Doughty, George Yiasoumi, Wayne Sleep.
Synopsis: A young Princess Elizabeth must fight to assume the throne of England, and once there, fight to keep it. Political and personal intrigue threaten to unseat her, and she must thwart those who seek to usurp her reign.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: period films frustrate the hell out of me. While for the most part they’re entertaining to see just how people (might have) lived back in the day, often with English period films pertaining to social class and structure (almost everything by Jane Austin pisses me off majorly) it drives me crazy that people had to conform to a certain behaviour; generally a behaviour not conducive to good living or emotional stability. Elizabeth, which tells the story of the early part of the famed Queen’s reign over England, is a film equally as enjoyable, and equally as frustrating for me, because in royal life the social structures and behaviour etiquette is even more rigid than the lower classes! Oh how I’d have hated to live back then… I’d have been a servant of some sort, lacking anything resembling my modest middle-class upbringing (my father was a farmer, so I guess back then I’d have been considered Lower Class – today it’s a different story) and I certainly wouldn’t have had a snowballs chance in hell of climbing the social ladder. The other thing about period films, especially to a modern audience, is how connected we are emotionally to the events that transpire. Often, period films come across as aloof or emotionally cold, mainly due to the lack of an audiences ability to connect with the characters – often, they’re in a situation so far removed from our own, we find ourselves asking why don’t they just do this, or that, forgetting that our modern social principles often don’t apply to the films’ time period.
Elizabeth, the first of director Shekhar Kapur’s duo of films focusing on England’s formidable ruler, is a lavishly mounted, well acted period film that elevates cinema as an art-form. Stylish, filled with spectacular locations and sets, as well as a great cast of stars (and up-and-comers), Elizabeth manages to straddle the line between heady drama and outright melodrama. The young Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett), rightful heir to the throne of England, is imprisoned in her estate, and then imprisoned in the Tower Of London, suspected of a conspiracy to murder then-Queen, Mary I. Mary, a Catholic queen, is against the young Elizabeth, a Protestant, inheriting the throne, but dies of cancer without child – leaving Elizabeth as the new Queen of England. However, this privilege is not without some drawbacks: namely, the lack of a private life and the constant inquiries into her well-being, particularly the movements “in the bedroom”, which would secure her position from those who seek to depose her. Elizabeth’s senior advisor, an elderly chap named William Cecil (Richard Attenborough) is constantly berating the young Queen to marry, and conceive a child, not only to continue her line but to thwart the plans of the vicious Duke Of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston), who seeks to have the throne for Mary of Guise, the self-proclaimed French Queen, who Elizabeth has had imprisoned in her home in Scotland. The Pope, meanwhile, has plans of his own, sending his envoy to plot to kill the Queen. Another of Elizabeth’s advisers, the sneaky Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) is onto these plans, however, and sets in motion a plot to trap the conspirators. It’s all very kill-or-be-killed, this film, and the plots intertwine deliciously through a quite compressed timeline.
The first point to mention is the absolutely spot-on casting in this film – Blanchett inhabits the role of Elizabeth so completely you almost forget you’re watching a (mostly) fictional film. Her command of both the English accent and the nuances of Elizabeth’s persona are superb, and it’s hardly surprising to remember that she was nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars for her performance here. She’s ably supported by a wonderful Geoffrey Rush, as Walsingham, and Joseph Fiennes as Dudley, Elizabeth’s true love (until he betrays her, that is) – but the most surprising for me is Richard Attenborough as Cecil; I’d forgotten just how accomplished a performer Mr Attenborough actually is! He’s genuinely effective in his supporting role of the man trying to get Elizabeth inseminated by any local (or international) royal he can. A slew of British talent inhabits the castles and palaces of Elizabeth’s time, from Emily Mortimer (almost unrecognisable as one of Libby’s ladies in waiting), to Daniel Craig, John Gielgud, Kelly Macdonald, and French stars Vincent Cassell, Fanny Ardant, and Eric Cantona. Everywhere you look, talent reeks on the screen, making it almost impossible to make this film a bad one.
With such a solid cast, you really need a script to do them all justice: Michael Hirst’s stoush-laden script bubbles along with almost Shakespearean eloquence, allowing the characters time to build themselves within the overriding story of Elizabeth’s succession and subsequent fight to stay in power. Thankfully, the script never stoops to overdoing the explanation: a few title cards allow us to be brought up to speed on the time and political situation we find ourselves in – mainly, the fact that England is divided by religion: the Catholics and the Protestants are trying desperately to wrest control of the country from each other, and civil unrest is constantly brewing about London. Yet, throughout this all, the dialogue is what moves the story along, never a directorial flourish for the sake of it. People who don’t understand the world of Elizabeth aren’t catered for, you must try and keep up as best you can.
The final massive plus this film has going for it is the stunning production design. Filmed in actual castles and palaces, as well as a few judiciously designed sets, Elizabeth evokes the period in both locale and design. Costumes are equally superb, with every corset and pantaloon festooned with all the pageantry of an Elton John concert. The cinematography captures the lighting and shadow of the period so well, it’s like a moving work of art at times. David Hirschfelder’s evocative score, replete with instrumentation of the time, is sublime, although it must be said that it’s hard to remember a specific tune in my head after the fact: regardless, the music inhabits this film with the truth and nuance deserving of such a wonderful piece of filmmaking. Hirschfelder, it might be noted, also composed the scores for Shine, Australia, Sliding Doors, and more recently the animated film Legends Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’Hoole. I mention his work because he’s a fellow Aussie, and a highly talented composer in his own right.
Director Kapur has truly captured the intensity, the unrestrained terror of living in Elizabethan England, with its rigid social structure and cloying socio-political climate. Among the films key elements, especially the one garnering much of the criticism at the time, was the overtly negative portrayal of Catholicism: the fact that religious evil was (and continues to be) perpetrated at the time isn’t in dispute, it’s just that the film seems to want to portray all Catholics as evil, usurping nasty-folk, a fact that wasn’t true. It’s a bit like saying all Muslims are terrorists: and common sense allows us to see that statement as a fallacy. The overly anti-Catholic portrayal isn’t too far from the truth, as I mentioned above both Catholics and Protestants were going at each other like a couple of pit-bull who’ve had their scrotums flicked with a wet towel. I don’t think you could argue that there was conflict at the time, so anybody trying to justify the events portrayed in the film as being inflammatory would be not only stating the obvious, but showing their own ignorance as well.
Elizabeth is nothing if not a polarising film experience. Its broad strokes of fictionalising the truth, as well as embellishing the fatuous inaccuracies within the script (see this link to Wikipedia for the list of errors in the film), never override the stunning performance of Blanchett as the Queen nor the dramatic, often violent events that took place before, during and after her succession to the throne. The film is intelligent, gorgeous and mesmerising to watch, and it’s with the highest sense of cinematic class that I recommend it to you most ardently.