I'll cop to the fact that one of my guilty pleasures is watching period pieces,         
  whether it be an epic romance along the lines of
 or OUT OF AFRICA or historical drama such as A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS. The
 new Gramercy release Elizabeth is sort of a combination of both, melding court
 intrigues and politics with a love story. And what a subject! The reign of the Tudor
 Queen Elizabeth I has provided fodder for numerous interpretations and the
 character has offered a field day for actresses as varied as Bette Davis, Glenda             
  Jackson and Jean Simmons. Here the lovely Cate Blanchett assumes the role and
 emerges as one of the most promising talents of recent years.

         Admittedly, the project on paper sounded dubious: the early life of an iconic
 British figure, directed by an acclaimed Indian director (Shekhar Kapur) and starring
 two prominent Australian actors (Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush). From its opening
 sequence that dizzingly depicts the burning of Protestants at the stake, Kapur
 announces that this film will be different. Oftentimes in historical dramas, too
 much emphasis is placed on prettifying the surroundings and one gets a squeaky
 clean depiction of the times. In
ELIZABETH there is great use of light to contrast
 the various worlds. The streets of London and later the battlefields are greyish in
 tone, marked by the dirt of dust of everyday life. The court of her half-sister, the
 elder Mary Tudor (effectively captured by Kathy Burke) is dark and dank, a world
 with hope. On the other hand, Elizabeth's world is bright, filled with color (whether
 natural or in the garments and decor) and therefore brimming with hope.

         As with any historical epic, one can quibble over the retelling of history.
 There are blatant errors in the facts (i.e., Mary of Guise, a nemesis of Elizabeth's,
 was not murdered) but one comes to expect some dramatic license to be employed
 (even Shakespeare made up events for a more theatrical effect). Kapur and
 screenwriter Michael Hirst do go awry in the confusing plots and counter plots; if
 one has a limited grasp of Tudor-era history, some of the events may prove
 confusing. Still, they have collaborated on a highly engaging, entertaining and
 sweeping pageant that is propelled by the strong acting, inventive camerawork
 and stylized production and costume design. Special mention goes to director of
 photography Remi Adefarasin, costume designer Alexandra Byrne (who also did
 Kenneth Brannagh's
HAMLET) and production designer John Myrhe.

         Blanchett's Elizabeth is introduced as a young woman in the throes of love;
 she and the caddish Earl of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes) are engaging in a not to
 hidden affair. Meanwhile Queen Mary is suffering from cancer which she believes
 at first to be a much needed heir. With Mary's death, Elizabeth ascends to the
 throne and discovers the treachery and difficulties of being a monarch. She must
 cope with threats from both outside and inside her realm (the latter personified
 in the Catholic Duke of Norfolk, essayed by Christopher Eccleston) as well as
 pressure to marry not for love but for country; the proper match could avoid war.
 Gradually the headstrong Elizabeth must come to accept the counsel of Sir Francis
 Walsingham (Rush), a master spy with a world- wide network of contacts. As she
 grows into the role of the monarch, Elizabeth tellingly annexes the persona of
 the Blessed Virgin Mary and refashions her image into that of the Virgin Queen,
 married only to her country.

         Kapur proves a more than capable director and brings an outsider's energy
 to the proceedings. The pace is quick and the time passes fast (Elizabeth runs
 over two hours). There is a lot of material covered but the film never feels
 overstuffed nor does it drag. The superlative acting by the entire cast is also a
 benefit. Blanchett negotiates the role well, moving from coltish princess to studied
 monarch. She excels in small details, whether it is adjusting the crown at her
 coronation or verbally sparring with the bishops who oppose her. Joseph Fiennes
 is a bit confined by the role he has to play. There are only so many ways to make
 a scoundrel interesting. Handsomer than his older brother (Ralph), he cuts a
 dashing figure and one can easily see what the impressionable princess might find
 appealing in him. But his character isn't really allowed to grow. Others deserving
 of mention in the large cast are Rush, who brings a sinister but smooth charm
 to Walsingham, Richard Attenborough as the ineffectual advisor Sir William Cecil,
 Christopher Eccleston as the ambitious Norfolk, James Frain as the Spanish
 ambassador and the ever more impressive Kathy Burke. Sir John Gielgud also
 makes a cameo appearance as the Pope who declares Elizabeth's reign invalid.

ELIZABETH is a stunning film whose only major flaw, in my estimation, is
 Kapur's choice of score. At times the music works well to underscore the onscreen
 events (notably the final sequences that recall Francis Ford Coppola's
 trilogy), but there are too many times when it calls attention to itself and blares
 too loudly, obscuring the conversation or the events being depicted. It is perhaps
 a minor criticism, but one that bears mentioning. Overall, though,
 will provide the filmgoer with a memorable experience.

                         Rating:                B+
                         MPAA Rating:        R for violence and sexuality
                         Running time:       124 mins.
© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.