Elizabeth

Elizabeth

*****

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Before she became The Virgin Queen, Elizabeth was a sexy, spirited girl, with long red hair, and a smile that mocked the seriousness of her position as Queen Mary's half-sister and heiress to the throne. She was fun, well-educated and emotionally tough. She needed to be. In the 1550s, England was in religious turmoil. Her father, Henry VIII, broke with Rome because the Pope would not let him divorce and declared the country Protestant, which meant the Papists laid low. Then the king died. Six years later his weakling son, Edward, died. "Bloody" Mary, a Catholic, took over. Suddenly the tables turned and the Protestants became heretics and up and down the land human bonfires celebrated a return to the one true faith.

Life was cheap. Survival depended on who you were and who your friends were and whether you played the game with cold steel or rapier wit. Trust was not a word that coveted conviction. Elizabeth had a boyfriend, Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), Earl of Leicester. What was his agenda? Where did his allegiances lie? As much as anyone could be in such treacherous times, he was harmless and in love and naive enough to think that his position was safe. Politics, after all, bored him.

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This is The Godfather for the 16th century, with a 25-year-old queen standing in for Michael Corleone. Murders are haphazard, almost casual. Killing is not the issue. Power is.

Behind the throne, big guys plot and scheme. The Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston) is younger than most, a thug with a dominant personality - he growls and frowns - and an inability to believe that anyone else's opinion is worth boar dung. When cancer claims Mary, before she can have Elizabeth executed for "treason", the princess takes the crown with a certain trepidation.

The French are gathering at the Scottish border. The Spanish want marriage to ensure their pact. The Protestants are waiting to be saved. The film has a rawness and an energy that obliterates historical niceties. This is not a Tudor romance, rollicking with good cheer and lustful fruitfulness. It is stained with the blood of innocents. These men, these barons, freed from regal patronage after the death of the king, pay lip service to the monarch, while maneuvering themselves into positions of wealth and influence. Having another woman wear the crown worries them little. Women are self-deceivers, hysterical and easily flattered. Look at that fool Mary.

Elizabeth is her father's daughter, intelligent, strong-willed and courageous. All she lacks is the confidence to order the death of her enemies. "I do not like wars," she says. "They have uncertain outcomes." What she realises is that she cannot be married for the sake of expediency. She will be married to her people. To become wise and respected, she denies her sexuality and so kills the thing she loves - the fun of life, the freedom of youth, the irresponsibility of passion.

Shekhar Kapur brings a whole new sensibility to this so English of subjects. Known in the West as the controversial director of Bandit Queen, he has won clutches of film awards in his native India. Elizabeth avoids complacency, uses landscape as haute couture, does not exaggerate the grandeur of the court, exposing the dark side of heritage. By breaking rules of costume drama, Kapur risks alienating those who roared approval at such populist hits as Braveheart. So be it. He is in a different class.

The performances walk up and touch you. Cate Blanchett's Elizabeth evolves in stages from the carefree girl who is smarter and quicker than her men friends to the isolated woman in a face mask who rules with a will of stone. She is wonderful to watch. Her fellow Australian, Geoffrey Rush, as the enigmatic security chief, Walsingham, has a haunting presence. Even when not on screen, he is there, like the ghost of bad deeds. Fiennes, in doublet and hose, is a redoubtable Dudley, arrogant in the knowledge that Elizabeth loves him. As a political thriller, the film exceeds expectation. As a portrait of dangerous days, it is vibrant and fearful. As a love story, it carries sadness for joy.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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Events leading up to and following the crowning of the Virgin Queen.
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