movie film review | chris tookey

Elizabeth / Elizabeth: The Virgin Queen

1998 - PolyGram Filmed Entertainment / Gramercy Pi - all rights reserved
  Elizabeth / Elizabeth: The Virgin Queen Review
Tookey's Rating
8 /10
Average Rating
6.67 /10
Elizabeth I: Cate Blanchett , Sir Francis Walsingham: Geoffrey Rush , Duke of Norfolk: Christopher Eccleston
Full Cast >

Directed by: Shekhar Kapur
Written by: Michael Hirst

Released: 1998
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: GB
Colour: C
Length: 124

Anyone who expects a birth-to-death film biography will be in for a surprise. It begins with Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett, pictured) already a full-grown, lusty princess, and ends with her transformation a few years later into an icon of firm government, a sixteenth-century Margaret Thatcher, a secular Virgin Mary.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Michael Hirst's screenplay will irritate some historians. He presents a linear, uncomplicated version of her development, overstressing the princess's early naivety. In reality, she was only too willing to save her skin during the reign of her half-sister Mary Tudor, by pretending to be staunchly Roman Catholic.

Later, Hirst plays fast and loose with chronology, compressing events that took years to unfold; but that is probably inevitable in a film that can not afford the more leisurely pace of a television series.

The least satisfactory element of the screenplay is Elizabeth's alleged love affair with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes). Whether it happened or not, it is presented as a conventional bodice-ripper.

Fiennes broods hard and long as a man racked by conflicting emotions; but when the relationship turns sour the audience is left in too much doubt as to Dudley's motivations. Too much of his role seems to have been lost in re-writes or left on the cutting-room floor.

The film delivers splendidly in the way it looks. England furnishes a wealth of wonderful, too-long neglected locations, and they offer a marvellous setting for the big set-pieces, such as a Midsummer Eve's River Pageant and the arrival of the Duke of Anjou at Whitehall.

The production design by John Myhre and costumes by Alexandra Byrne are gorgeous. Credit must go to producers Alison Owen, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner for ensuring that so much of the budget has ended up adorning the screen.

The film deserves praise above all for its acting, although some of the subsidiary lords and ladies struck me as having a touch of Essex about them (and not the Earl of Essex, either).

Indian director Shekar Kapur makes an error in casting Angus Deayton as Chancellor of the Exchequer, which gives one early scene the feeling of a sitcom.

Other casting works better. Ex-footballer Eric Cantona is surprisingly subtle and authoritative as the French Ambassador.

Christopher Eccleston takes a break from modern drama to play the principal villain, the Duke of Norfolk, in just the way villains ought to be played - as if they believe themselves to be heroes of their own personal drama.

Geoffrey Rush proves that his Oscar for Shine was no fluke, with a wonderfully thoughtful, powerful performance as the Queen's spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. He embodies the Machiavellian approach to statecraft, and his growing respect for the Queen reflects and influences the audience's own. His verbal fencing-match with Mary of Guise (superbly played by Fanny Ardant) is a masterclass in screen acting.

Rush's fellow-Australian, Cate Blanchett, is even more of a revelation - especially if you didn't see her two previous films, Paradise Road and Oscar and Lucinda. Not only does she look the part of Elizabeth. She matures convincingly and displays a transparency of emotion and thought reminiscent of Meryl Streep at her best. This Gloriana is truly glorious.

She is helped to look beautiful by cinematographer Remi Adefarasin, who revels in the Englishness of the settings, and further assisted by director Shekhar Kapur, more eager than most British directors would be to embrace a Queen as heroine.

He and Blanchett neatly avoid an anachronistically feminist reading of history, for they make it clear that in order to become a "strong woman" and a sixteenth-century equivalent to The Godfather, Elizabeth had to sacrifice important, feminine areas of her personality.

They have no problem admiring the Queen's growing ruthlessness, or her analysis that it is better to be cruel, devious and survive, than kind, honest and dead.

The film avoids becoming a history lesson; yet its messages for the present are instructive. One is that the neat division of a ruler's life between private and public is an impractical one. The public always takes precedence, whether one likes it or not.

This is a lesson which younger members of our royal family, and those who feel called to high government, may do well to ponder. It clearly came too late for President Clinton.

The film's other lesson - which it shares with that otherwise dissimilar film, Saving Private Ryan - is that it's admirable to serve one's country.

Kapur sees that Elizabeth flourished by putting the national interest first. He portrays this as a fine thing, even over-embellishing the patriotic finale by bringing in some anachronistic Elgar music.

Despite occasional errors of taste and imprecision in story-telling, Elizabeth is to be welcomed, because it's high time that our film industry made more films about Britain's heroes.

It is ridiculous that only in wartime do the English produce films about its great commanders, such as Nelson, when the French and Americans make film after film about their national heroes. Why are there no half-way decent pictures about such fascinating figures as Wellington or Sir Frances Drake?

Feminism, pacifism, Marxism and just plain cynicism have all contributed to British film-makers' habit of heckling our heroes, or simply ignoring them; but all around the world, vast numbers of people pay to see movies built around heroic individuals, who embody our deepest aspirations and fix our eyes upon excellence.

American movies owe their overwhelming international success to the fact that they look for the positive and heroic wherever they can find it, in Presidents or blue-collar workers.

Though certainly no masterpiece and not to be taken altogether seriously as history, Elizabeth is commendably true to the spirit of its heroine, and it makes us examine the nature of politics and leadership anew. Not bad for a two-hour movie.

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