REVIEW: Elizabeth [1998]

“The Virgin Queen”

Not being a fan of the biopic, I must say that Elizabeth leaves an impression. With outstanding performances, lush settings and costumes, as well as a well-crafted story, this film does exactly what is needed for a biography to succeed—and it sticks to a specific period of a legend’s life, without trying to tell eighty years in two hours. Hers is a tale that many know, at least a trifle bit, about. From our introduction, writer Michael Hirst, (a scholar at the subject if I’m to be believed with this, its sequel, and the intriguing Showtime series “The Tudors” to his credit), tells us exactly what is necessary to gage all our principal players. Elizabeth is a Protestant, thus a heretic to those in power. Her being an illegitimate heir, daughter of Ann Boleyn, those with aspirations to the crown, the Duke of Norfolk at the forefront, look to do all they can in order to remove her. Elizabeth is at first a child in love, given an opportunity to rule yet without the strength needed to make decisions based on her own sound judgment rather than those around her. While she is a woman, and even those who call themselves friends and allies can’t shake that fact, in order to rule, she must be sure her mind is ruling and not her heart. Thus, we are shown the rise of a woman, whom no one thought able to survive a day on the job, who would soon vault her nation to be the wealthiest and most powerful in the world.

Shekhar Kapur is blessed with a script from Hirst that gets everything right. As far as story goes, this film is minimal and straight to the point. We are taken through the journey of betrayals with little doubt or vagueness. All crossovers of allegiances, all attempts at deception in order to use her as a pawn for more power, and each action that slowly shows her what it means to be human and how even the most trusted of her peers can be bought and sold, are portrayed to the point. Everything in the world was stacked against the Queen whether it politics, religion, or love. It all could have fallen apart very easily too, if not for the performances Kapur got from his players. While the script is devoid of excess, it is the direction that flourishes with style and radiance. From the castle interiors to the period dress, the film is precise in its recreation of the time. The words are perfect and the plot fast paced and exciting, but without the artistry to deliver it as such, no one would be talking about the end result nearly as much as they do. A good story may be enough for me, but it is the spectacle that allows it to succeed across the board.

Besides the visuals, the main driving force at play is the career-defining performance from Cate Blanchett. The Oscar winning portrayal of Katherine Hepburn, the standout roles such as in Veronica Guerin or Notes on a Scandal, and even playing a male icon such as Bob Dylan only add to her canon and help prop up what could be the best actress working today. However, it is this role that will always be synonymous with her name. To be able to show off the smile of a young woman attempting to keep her life together while it is swept away in the storm of responsibility for a nation is an amazing feat. Her virtue and faith in her own beliefs showed early on during her subjection to treason charges and almost execution at the hands of her half-sister, but they only fully show themselves at the end when she has finally excepted her duty above any earthly gains she might have otherwise. Only by secluding herself from the temptations of the flesh, or the heart of a woman, as some characters here would say, can she be strong enough to survive and protect her ward of England. The power that exudes from her being during the final chapter is immense. Some may say she became cold-hearted, but if you watch her performance carefully, you’ll see that it is her love and that alone which enables her to do the things she does. Only love and faith could allow her to acquiesce to the deeds she knows must occur for her land to be safe from harm. I can’t wait to see this strength of character throughout an entire film, as I can only imagine Elizabeth: The Golden Age will see her reign with that power prominently thrust forward.

One can’t stop with just Blanchett when speaking of the acting on display here. Geoffrey Rush is absolutely brilliant portraying the one man truly working on the Queen’s side. It is his role as Sir Francis Walsingham that reminds Elizabeth of who she is. He speaks of what Princes must do to succeed and what dark deeds are necessary for the good of the whole. He treats the Queen as an intelligent being and not a woman in a man’s job. Without his dedication and willingness to do the dirty work in order to propel her reputation as one to not take lightly, her reign would have been very short lived. Stoic throughout, besides a few gentle moments where the appearance of a smile can be seen, Rush is the epitome of a man taking his career seriously and the well being of those in his duty to protect ahead of any other.

The rest of the cast is a who’s who of European greats. Christopher Eccleston is spot-on as the villainous Norfolk just doing what he believes is best for his nation; Joseph Fiennes is good as Lord Robert, however at times seems a bit too theatric; Richard Attenborough brings a nice turn as the Queen’s closest advisor, wrestling with his belief in her at the expense of his thoughts that she is just a woman; and then we have the numerous cameos from the likes of Emily Mortimer, Kelly MacDonald, Daniel Craig, James Frain (also starring in the “Tudors”), and a gem of comedy to lighten the mood from Vincent Cassel. It is these small roles that show the true strength of the film. By reining in the scope of a story about Elizabeth to that crucial time of her ascension to power, it allows for the filmmakers to make sure every detail is perfect. Credit to Hirst and Kapur for getting it all right.

Elizabeth 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


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