The History Place - Movie Review


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 to whom.

But that's precisely the problem Elizabeth is facing and it only serves to draw us closer to her as she struggles against stacked odds.

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 and Cromwell.

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.

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