Wednesday, 19 September 2007
Elizabeth (1998) dir. Shekar Kapur
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccelston, Joseph Fiennes
“Elizabeth” launched the great Cate Blanchett to the world. She delivers a terrific star-making performance as the innocent bastard child of Henry VIII turned powerful Queen of England. No one should use the film as research for their high school essays mind you, but it’s fun to see the important transition period of English and European history play out in classic Hollywood melodramatic fashion.
Director Kapur sets the tone early with a bombastic opening. Taking a page from Baz Luhrman’s “Romeo + Juliet” his opening titles set to an operatic music extravaganza tells us the simplified details of the backstory with statements like “THE COUNTRY IS DIVIDED” and “CATHOLIC AGAINST PROTESTANT”. Kapur is clearly telling us this is no corset-drama. The Queen on the throne, Mary Tudor (Kathy Burke) has been sickened with cancer and the Catholic loyalists fear the Protestant Elizabeth will take the throne and reduce their power. The anti-Protestant movement is led by the Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston). He tries his best to get the Queen to execute Elizabeth before she dies, but the Queen puts family ahead of religion and lets Elizabeth live.
As soon as she’s coroneted Elizabeth faces the backstabbing pressure of Norfolk and his Catholic cronies. On her side is her secret lover, Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) and returning from exile, Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush). Walsingham becomes her trusted advisor and guides her through the regal politicking. In order to strengthen her monarchy she is encouraged to seek a husband and produce an heir. Elizabeth is courted by numerous candidates, two of whom are the French consort Duc d'Anjou (Vincent Cassel) and the son of the King of Spain. As Elizabeth toils between love and politics she loses some of her most trusted friends. She makes a decision to give her body and soul to her country – hence becoming the “Virgin Queen”.
The first half of “Elizabeth” works better than the second half. The action-packed dramatic opening gives the film a Francis Coppola "Dracula" feel – operatic, dangerous and larger than life. Kapur stages the court action dramatically, freeing the genre from the stuffy cold confines of traditional period films like “Beckett” or “A Man For All Seasons”. Kapur’s “Elizabeth” is warm, lively, and fast-paced. Unfortunately the pacing slows down in the second half when Elizabeth is consumed with pressure to wed and give birth. In the latter scenes intrigue prevails over action and drama.
Kapur gives enough quality screen time to many great performers. Geoffrey Rush is terrific as the quiet and confident Walsingham, Fiennes fits the bill as Elizabeth’s charming boy toy and Christopher Eccelston is perfectly cast as the conniving antagonist. Vincent Cassel sells out by playing the fanciful French courtesan as a crossing-dressing fairy. But it was much fun to see English/French soccer star Eric Cantona’s commanding presence as the French ambassador Monsieur de Foix.
Kapur steals his ending from “The Godfather”, using Coppola’s assassination montage sequence from that film to show how Elizabeth and Walsingham permanently dispose of her enemies. But, as mentioned, Kapur is taking bits and pieces of other films to make his own version of a period epic.
The reign of Queen Elizabeth I has so many more exciting and compelling stories. For this reason Kapur and Blanchett have reprised their duties and created a historical sequel – “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” due in theatres in a few weeks. This next film will involve Elizabeth and her fight with Spain, Mary Queen of Scots and her relationship with explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (played by Clive Owen). Let’s hope “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” will make a good companion to this first film. Enjoy.
PS Watch for more Elizabeth-themed reviews in the next two weeks.
Buy the new issue DVD here: Elizabeth (Spotlight Series)