1998, R, 124 min. Directed by Shekhar Kapur. Starring Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Fiennes.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Nov. 20, 1998
With style, passion, and intelligence, Elizabeth answers the question lurking silently amid mounting slag heaps of cheesy Princess Di memorabilia: What is this thing we have about royalty? What primal need does their apparently superfluous presence satisfy? According to this gripping story of Queen Elizabeth I's rise to power, it's our need to see and touch the divine here on earth. And never was that need more real than in 16th-century England, when a combination of foreign military threats, debilitating Protestant-Catholic conflicts, and a bitter dispute over the line of royal succession had reduced the tiny island nation to a state of near-chaos. As we all know, it was Elizabeth, the so-called “virgin queen,” who laid the foundations of a future British Empire by crushing all enemies from within and without, and by pushing for the creation of an Independent Church of England. But as Shekhar's film vividly illustrates, this was a virtually miraculous accomplishment for the young queen, who had to contend not only with her own political naïveté but also the stigma of being both Protestant and the fruit of King Henry VIII's scandalous liaison with Anne Boleyn. Cate Blanchett, who made an indelible impression as Ralph Fiennes' soulmate in Oscar and Lucinda is, if anything, even better here as the future embodiment of all things British. Despite the florid trailers' emphasis on bodice-ripping romantic imagery, Elizabeth is above all a political thriller. And the real essence of this story is the harrowing on-the-job training of an intelligent but woefully unprepared young lamb tossed into a slavering wolfpack of cold-blooded enemies (some disguised as friends and lovers) whose dearest wish is to eat her alive. Blanchett's pale, oddly compelling face is a record of every ghastly Pyhrric victory, every bitter disillusionment, every hard-won insight along the way. Each step toward her royal destiny means giving up a little more of her human essence. By the end, when she literally becomes a flesh-and-blood icon, the ambivalence of her triumph makes this scene one of the more subtly heartbreaking moments I've seen in any recent film. The excellence in casting goes deep, including not only Geoffey Rush's magnificent performance as the queen's Machiavelli-quoting chief advisor, but a searing turn by Christopher Eccleston as the fanatical, traitorous Duke of Norfolk. Former Truffaut mainstay Fanny Ardant makes a vivid impression in as a sexy, madness-tinged Mary of Guise. And Joseph Fiennes acquits himself well in his demanding, morally ambiguous role as a boyfriend of the young Elizabeth who ends up as ballast jettisoned during her ascent. Elizabeth has just one meaningful fault, common to many filmed historical dramas: Events that happened over many years have been crunched into an unmanageably (and inaccurately) short timeline, junking up the narrative and doing disservice to history. But just as I was happy to forgive this flaw in great films like A Lion in Winter, I'm also pleased to cut slack for the similarly admirable Elizabeth. If movies like this are your cup of mead, I'm betting you'll feel the same way.