DECLARED ILLEGITIMATE AGED 3. TRIED FOR TREASON AGED 21. CROWNED QUEEN AGED 25.
The opening credits are thunderous and intimidating, suggesting that this is perhaps a horror movie. They are followed by a grisly sequence where people are burned at the stake. However, what appears is a film that is quite obviously and cleverly inspired by The Godfather (1972). 16th century politics has never looked more like a mob drama.
There are several inaccuracies in the script, but one is perfectly willing to overlook them. The story begins in 1558 with the Roman Catholic Mary I of England dying of cancer. She has no children but loathes the idea of seeing her Protestant half sister Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) as the next Queen. Elizabeth is accused of treason, but Mary is unable to follow through on her threats of having her next of kin executed. That becomes Elizabeth’s ticket to the throne. When we first meet her she’s a vivacious, beautiful, young woman who has no real desire to become Queen, but accepts the inevitable with grace and courage. However, the royal court is full of traitors and conspiracies and Elizabeth finds herself being forced to play games, something every king and queen has done before her as well. It is expected of her to secure the line of succession, perhaps with the future king of France… but she has no interest in the childish womanizer Henri (Vincent Cassel).
Her love belongs to Lord Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), a man she has known forever; still, he remains a person she as Queen could never marry. As Elizabeth’s personal problems mount, the threats against her and England increase. Mary of Guise (Fanny Ardant), the ruler of Scotland, is protected by French forces and poses a growing Catholic threat against England. All of the combined experiences turn Elizabeth I into the hardened ruler we have come to see her.
Forced to overcome her innocence
It is a story very similar to Michael Corleone’s rise as the next head of family in The Godfather in this version, much like Michael, Elizabeth is forced to overcome her innocence and learn how to strike first against enemies. In the end of the film, there’s even a series of sequences reminiscent of the brilliant baptism scene in The Godfather. Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) kills on the Queen’s orders and she subsequently appears in a new kind of extravagant glory, wearing white face paint and a cold, determined look, giving the impression of a ruler who survived the bloody initiation rites.
The film became Blanchett’s breakthrough and she is a tower of strength throughout her character’s journey from naiveté to experience; she’s surrounded by a first-rate cast of British, French (even soccer star Eric Cantona) and one Australian actor. Director Shekhar Kapur is an interesting figure; a former accountant who made the interesting Bandit Queen (1994), he brings life to this drama to the degree that it becomes as exciting as a thriller. He and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin stage their sequences like majestic, overwhelming paintings; perhaps they get a little too carried away, but this is after all a work of fiction.
It is interesting to make comparisons between Elizabeth and another 1998 portrayal of this century, Shakespeare in Love, which featured some of the same actors and Judi Dench as an older Elizabeth; it also played loose with history. Humorous and lighthearted, that version is the flip side to this film, which is essentially a dark coming-of-age tale.
In spite of all the thunder and murderous conspiracies, Kapur never loses sight of the profound tragedy of Elizabeth’s life.
Elizabeth 1998-Britain. 123 min. Color. Produced by Alison Owen, Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan. Directed by Shekhar Kapur. Screenplay: Michael Hirst. Cinematography: Remi Adefarasin. Music: David Hirschfelder. Makeup: Jenny Shircore. Cast: Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth I), Geoffrey Rush (Sir Francis Walsingham), Joseph Fiennes (Lord Robert Dudley), Richard Attenborough, Christopher Eccleston, Vincent Cassel… Fanny Ardant, Eric Cantona, John Gielgud, Daniel Craig.
Trivia: Followed by Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007).
Oscar: Best Makeup. BAFTA: Best British Film, Actress (Blanchett), Supporting Actor (Rush), Cinematography, Film Music, Makeup/Hair. Golden Globe: Best Actress (Blanchett).
Last word: “It was great and very challenging as Shekhar was never satisfied. We must have done thirteen passes at the script at one point when I said to him, it was Easter, ‘look I am going on holiday with my kids and family to a place in France and I will be back in ten days’ but he said ‘no no we can’t stop we have this momentum’ but I said ‘Shekhar lets have a little break and I will see you in ten days.’ So I went out and the first morning that we were in France I went downstairs and drew the curtains and Shekhar was standing in the garden (laughs). And that is what he was like he just wouldn’t leave me alone. But one of the great things was he didn’t know who Elizabeth I was, for him she was just a young woman in a really tough spot. So he wasn’t reverential, if we’d have got some like Dickie Attenborough, someone from our culture, to do a movie about Elizabeth I there is always the danger of the reverential camera and someone treating her as if she wasn’t flesh and blood or thinking too much about her iconic status.” (Hirst, Female First)