Elizabeth (United Kingdom, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England began in 1558, when, at the age of 25, she succeeded her half-sister, Mary. Over the course of the next 45 years, Elizabeth established herself as one of the most popular and successful monarchs ever to rule England. Elizabeth, the pseudo-biographical film from director Shakhar Kapur (Bandit Queen), presents the young queen's struggles in the form of a grand costume melodrama (of the sort that the French are famous for). It's a rousing adventure that keeps the audience involved for the entirety of the two hour running time while opening a window into the culture that gave birth to Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, Francis Bacon, and William Shakespeare.

The film starts in 1554, with the Catholic Queen Mary (Kathy Burke), the daughter of Henry VIII, on the throne. Frightened that her younger half-sister, Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett), is involved in a plot to usurp her crown, Mary has her heir thrown into the Tower of London. Elizabeth survives the ordeal and, upon Mary's death, assumes the throne. Immediately, she is confronted by a legion of problems: a dry treasury, a weak army, the need to marry to secure the blood line, and a growing threat from Mary of Guise (Fanny Ardant), who is massing troops to move against England. There are also dangers within Elizabeth's court, the most notable of which comes from the dangerous Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston), who wants her dead. And, because Elizabeth is a Protestant, Pope Pius V (John Gielgud) declares her a heretic and issues a proclamation releasing all English Catholics from following her. To help her in her struggles, Elizabeth has three strong allies: the ever-faithful William Cecil (Richard Attenborough), the wily and dangerous Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), and the love of her life, Lord Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes).

From a general perspective, Elizabeth offers a reasonably accurate overview of the 16th century monarch's character and life. When it comes to specifics, however, the film is sorely lacking. Much of what happens in Elizabeth did not happen that way, and, if the plot occasionally seems unnecessarily convoluted and confusing, it's understandable, since writer Michael Hirst has chosen to compress many of the key events of Elizabeth's lengthy reign into a five-year period. There are also several outright distortions of the historical record. In reality, for example, Mary of Guise's fate was significantly different than what the film depicts. Ultimately, however, all of this is, if not irrelevant, then inconsequential. Those who want a factual account of Elizabeth's reign can read a history book; Elizabeth does what it sets out to do: provide a solidly entertaining two hours.

One of the primary reasons Elizabeth works is because of the superlative performance of Cate Blanchett, who has turned out two of the most memorable female portrayals in the last two years (the other being in 1997's Oscar and Lucinda). Not only does Blanchett look like Elizabeth (credit the makeup and wardrobe departments), but she acts the part of a fiery, determined young woman riddled by the uncertainty of a precarious position. Like Judi Dench as Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown, she breathes life into the revered historical figure, transforming her from an old picture on an encyclopedia page to a flesh-and-blood individual whom an audience can root for and care about.

The supporting cast is top-notch. Geoffrey Rush brings something sinister to the crucial (if underwritten) role of Walsingham. Christopher Eccleston, who played the deliciously evil Mendel in A Price above Rubies, shows that he's every bit as good an antagonist in the 16th century as in the 20th. Only Richard Attenborough is a little flat - his performance lacks the kind of fire and passion one might expect from the queen's most faithful advisor. French actress Fanny Ardant and screen and stage veteran John Gielgud have small roles. Gielgud is especially noteworthy in that he makes Pope Pius V a malevolent figure.

In addition to its factual inaccuracies (which really don't represent a flaw, especially to viewers who are only passingly conversant with English history), Elizabeth possesses a few weaknesses. The movie's editing is uneven, a situation that can result in occasional bouts of confusion when trying to unravel the Byzantine plotting going on at court, and the ending seems a little too pat. Overall, however, this is a fine historical melodrama, with enough adventure, intrigue, and romance to keep the proceedings from dragging. It's not Braveheart or Rob Roy, but Shekhar Kapur's English-language debut is worth seeing, especially for those with an interest in the subject.

Elizabeth (United Kingdom, 1998)

Director: Shekhar Kapur
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Fiennes, Richard Attenborough, Fanny Ardant
Screenplay: Michael Hirst
Cinematography: Remi Adefarasin
Music: David Hirschfelder
U.S. Distributor: Gramercy Pictures
Run Time: 2:01
U.S. Release Date: 1998-11-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1