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 TITANIC, THE ENGLISH PATIENT
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 GODFATHER
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, ELIZABETH
will provide the filmgoer with a memorable experience.
MPAA Rating: R for violence and sexuality
Running time: 124 mins.
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.