By Fred Harvey
The History Place
Okay, here's the problem - you've just become
the new Queen of England and been thrust into the middle of a political
and religious firestorm, but you don't know who to trust, or even fully
understand what is going on.
What to do?
Elizabeth, the new historical drama directed by
Shekhar Kapur and starring Cate Blanchett is a marvelous look at power
politics, 1500s style, and shows the early evolution of a funloving, outgoing
girl into the most powerful woman who ever lived.
A little historical background -- She was the
daughter of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Henry had
desperately wanted to have a son and thus a male heir to the throne. His
first wife, Catherine, provided no son and so he wanted to divorce her.
Denied permission by Pope Clement, he broke off from the Catholic Church
and in 1534 declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England. He
married a total of six times. After his death, his young son, Edward, became
King at age 10, but he was a sickly boy and died of tuberculosis by age
16. He was succeeded by England's first female ruler, his half-sister,
Mary, a Roman Catholic, who wanted to reunite England with Rome and persecuted
English Protestants. She died of cancer in 1558, passing the throne to
her 25-year-old half-sister, Elizabeth, a Protestant. That's basically
where the film begins.
Historical Elizabeth was a vigorous young woman
who enjoyed robust outdoor activities including riding and hunting. She
had great social skills, even enjoying a hearty laugh while telling a coarse
joke or two. This is the Elizabeth presented to us in this film - not the
wax museum freak portrayed by Betty Davis in The Virgin Queen.
This Elizabeth is a real woman, talented but vulnerable,
possessing enormous potential and brain power. Upon becoming Queen, she
enters into the deadly ongoing political chess game involving pawns and
bishops from France and Spain, along with English Catholics who call her
the "bastard queen." One false move could cost her the throne
as well as her head.
Unsure of herself at first, she hands most of
the decisions to the wise old owl, Sir William Cecil, played by Richard
Attenborough. But after a military campaign he recommended ends in disaster,
she dismisses him and assumes command although he distinctly warns her
she is "only a woman."
She is soon swallowed up in swirls of intrigue
designed by those seeking to usurp her power by any means - from romance
and sex to outright murder. At this point in the movie as the pace quickens,
it's a bit hard to figure out exactly who is who, and who is doing what
But that's precisely the problem Elizabeth is
facing and it only serves to draw us closer to her as she struggles against
The stunning visuals presented by Kapur and Cinematographer,
Remi Adefarasin, work well to overcome the possibility of boring a '90s
audience with this kind of complicated historical drama. They employ quick
cuts, lots of close-ups, rich colors, and mysterious shadows amid candle
lit interiors to keep it interesting - a style in marked contrast to older
more static English historical dramas such as A Man for All Seasons
We know of course, from history, that she survived
and went on to lead England into a Golden (Elizabethan) Age which saw the
defeat of the Spanish Armada, and great writings by Francis Bacon, William
Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser and others.
However, Michael Hirst's screenplay achieves a
remarkable task in actually making us doubt that outcome. At times it seems
improbable that this woman will keep her head, opposed by so many superbly
skilled, ruthless manipulators.
In the end, to keep England, she surrenders herself
body and soul to the needs of her country, becoming lethal when necessary,
and ultimately becoming for her people, a leader of religious proportions.
Rated R - For violence, nudity.