Elizabeth
Director: Shekhar Kapur. Cast: Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Joseph Fiennes, Christopher Eccleston, Richard Attenborough, Fanny Ardant, Kathy Burke, Kelly MacDonald, John Gielgud, Eric Cantona, Vincent Cassel. Screenplay: Michael Hirst.

Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth is both something borrowed and something new. If you have seen both movies, you cannot help but observe how loyally Elizabeth follows the structure of The Godfather, as closely as Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine apes Citizen Kane or Gus Van Sant's Psycho follows, well, Psycho. We cannot trust anyone in Elizabeth, even the Queen herself, who performs some about-faces and unforeseen acts of willpower that earn her the title of Her Majesty. If the film is not quite so imperial or impressive as this peerless figure, we can hardly blame it.

Elizabeth begins with an intentionally stomach-turning sequence in which three defiant Protestants are burned at the stake by officers of the staunchly Catholic Queen Mary (Kathy Burke, of Dancing at Lughnasa). Mary's court is a dark, damp, and spooky domain, where the Queen sits perspiring and scowling on her throne, and a seeming batallion of advisors and defenders orbit around her; an old, wrinkled dwarf who sits at the Queen's feet seals her visual approximation of Jabba the Hutt. We should not, however, rush to name all—or perhaps any—of the men and women who surround the Queen as "advisors or defenders." What advice they dispense is at least as likely to serve their own interests as her own. A few of them seem interested in defending Mary's throne if only because it simplifies the project of plotting their own succession to the crown. Chief among these self-interested satellites is the Duke of Norfolk, played by Jude's Christopher Eccleston in a turn that melds a lustful passion for power with a steel-trap intelligence that knows just how to seize it.

Given all of these on-site conspirators, it seems laughable that Mary's biggest anxiety springs from a flaxen-haired maid who dances the valse far off in England's rural fields. Such is our first impression of Cate Blanchett's Elizabeth, and if the actress' presence does not immediately quiver with potency, it is because Elizabeth has not yet acquired her stately, resolute magnificence. Indeed, she has not needed to. She spends her days in exile from the castle of her half-sister Mary, idling pleasantly with a small coterie of friends and reciprocating the furtive, tender attentions of Robert Dudley. Joseph Fiennes' presence in that role, especially with Eccleston's baby-blue peepers and blazing talent right there on screen to remind you of his brother Ralph, comes across as rather limp and unmemorable, a rare lapse in the film's otherwise expert casting.

Norfolk convinces Mary that recent murmurs of mutinous antagonism around the palace are, if not directly fueled by agents of Elizabeth, then at least allowed to survive because Elizabeth's very existence gives hope to those factions who agitate for a Protestant ruler. Elizabeth is summarily hauled off to prison, but through a surprising course of events manages both to stave off her execution and, to no one's surprise more than her own, receive a coronation as Queen of England. History assures us of her triumphant work as monarch, but what director Kapur and scripter Michael Hirst want to show us is how fragile was Elizabeth's hold on the crown, how deep-seated and clever the forces of opposition, and how crucial the need for advisors and informants while this rural maid attempted to control a state beseiged by religious division and external threat.

As a filmmaker, you can hardly miss with a story like this, which arrives in modern hands already rigged-up with scandal, intrigue, counter-spying, and sexuality. As the film makes clear, without a hint of tawdriness, Elizabeth's legendary virginity was as politically savvy but factually spurious a notion as, well, the marital felicity of Bill and Hillary. The signature achievement of Elizabeth, however, is the rigor with which it translates this story out of the pages of history and into a lush visual world that is almost overwhelming in its dark beauty; like the pink tongue of a Venus flytrap, the rich golds and maroons of John Myhre's sets and Alexandra Byrne's costumes beguile the eye without ever dispelling the air of carnivorous peril. Their aura of danger even becomes literal in a scene where a character is killed by poison administered to a dress; then again, another character is doomed when her clothes are lasciviously removed in a rare moment of recklessness. Gowns and get-ups quickly become one of those things, it seems, that you can't live with and can't live without.

Digression finished. On a more skeptical note, Kapur's conception of Elizabeth's look is also, to an extent, a smoke-and-mirrors game that deploys visual showmanship in an attempt to hide the stagey talkiness and rote pattern of its scenes. Most often, two characters who may or may not be allies—they are usually both—speak with necessary but evident restraint their divergent views and heated opinions. Kapur and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin can think of few more innovative strategies for delivering these confrontations than to alternate between two actors in close-up. Their proclivity for starting scenes with swooping tracking shots and elaborate overheads does not disguise the talking-heads mode in which most of these scenes operate. The texture and design of the costumes, unsurprising in their richness since Byrne also dressed Branagh's Hamlet, are an economical and smart way to give the illusion of opulence, even to flesh out characters, when the tightness of a budget was probably strongly felt. Even so, the careful or expressive use of a camera would have cost nothing, but Elizabeth cannot match its production principles with as much force or eloquence of photographic vision.

As I have mentioned, the vision that Kapur rather seems most intent on mimicking is the operatic elegance of The Godfather. His pursuit of that model extends to a climactic, familiar sequence in which some avenging angels of the existing power regime (Elizabeth's servants now rather than Michael Corleone's) execute some key enemies in a few shots that Kapur intercuts with scenes of a church ceremony. To think on the analogy between the English monarchy and the 20th-century American gangster is provocative even when the stylistic copycatting seems forced or uncreative. More memorable are those scenes like those of the Protestant pyre or a silent, slow track over a field of soldiers killed in battle, or the painterly scene of coronation which, in evoking David's image of Napoleon's self-crowning, suggests that Elizabeth herself will become as powerful a figure, as charismatic and commanding, and occasionally as ruthless.

Like the film itself, Blanchett's presiding performance is constituted of individually striking moments that fail only to build a consistent momentum. We recognize by the film's conclusion that Elizabeth is a very different and more self-determining figure than the tremulous damsel we beheld at first, and Blanchett's playing of critical events—her discovery that a military campaign has incurred huge loss and discredit for England, her defiant posture of independence before an assembly of bishops—hews closely to the political import of each scene without denying them a credible dose of emotion.

At the same time, however, Blanchett's presence remains, as in Gillian Armstrong's extraordinary Oscar and Lucinda, an eccentric and interesting one that lacks much interior thread of personality. That aspect actually worked to her advantage in Oscar and Lucinda, because both of the title characters were relentless oddballs whom the story deliberately put forth as loosey-goosey collections of strange behaviors, sudden outbursts, and jerky twitchings. Elizabeth follows a more standard arc of escalating tension, but Blanchett remains an actress more of moment-by-moment flair than of sustained, expansive force. I would love to have seen what Tilda Swinton of Orlando and Female Perversions might have done with the part, but Blanchett's work is admirable and smart, savorable also for the hint it gives us of how great she will be in the future.

If only the whole film were as unique and magisterial as the kabuki-inspired end sequence that sees Elizabeth almost literally "take on" the persona of indomitable, super-human strength for which history would always remember her. The film's shortcomings often ride piggy-back on its virtues, and even after two viewings, it is neither a vital revisionist biography or an awkward, unsatisfying disappointment. Elizabeth's brilliant flashes and its derivative undercurrents make it an interesting picture if not always a vibrant one, an exciting generator of ideas which it does not always take to their fullest or most cinematic extent. I like and admire Elizabeth, but I also hold back from a full engagement or rapt involvement with the picture. Maybe no chronicle of this extraordinary woman can ever be as show-stopping as the Queen was herself, but happily Elizabeth's vision succeeds just a bit more often than not. C+


Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett
Best Cinematography: Remi Adefarasin
Best Art Direction: John Myhre; Peter Howitt
Best Costume Design: Alexandra Byrne
Best Original Score: David Hirschfelder
Best Makeup: Jenny Shircore

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Shekhar Kapur
Best Actress (Drama): Cate Blanchett

Other Awards:
National Board of Review: Best Director
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best British Film; Best Actress (Blanchett); Best Supporting Actor (Rush); Best Cinematography; Best Original Score; Best Makeup/Hair
Satellite Awards: Best Actress, Drama (Blanchett); Best Costume Design

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