Even students of English history may have trouble sorting out the palace intrigues and intragovernmental conspiracies that fill Elizabeth, the handsome new production about Queen Elizabeth I's ascension to the British throne in 1558. With the bewitching Australian actress Cate Blanchett (last year's Oscar and Lucinda) in the title role, the film follows Elizabeth's transformation from a young woman of independent spirit and private passions but little knowledge of the world into a shrewd, indomitable leader who brilliantly consolidated her -- and her nation's -- power, re-established order, and presided over what became known as Britain's "Golden Age." Although frustratingly confusing -- often the viewer can't be sure who is on which side or why -- the film brims with physical grandeur, exquisite costumes and a captivating performance by Blanchett.
The film opens in 1554, during the reign of Elizabeth's half sister and predecessor, the unpopular Queen Mary I (Kathy Burke), a zealous Catholic (hundreds of Protestants are burned at the stake) who has brought England to the brink of financial ruin. Rivalries and rebellions are rife; at one point Elizabeth herself is suspected of treason and is briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London. But upon Mary's death in 1558, it is Elizabeth who succeeds her.
The daughter of King Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn, 25-year-old Elizabeth inherits a country that is fiscally bankrupt, has no army, and is under serious threat from abroad. She has enemies within her own court; the most dangerous is the Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston, seen previously in Jude and Shallow Grave).
Norfolk's plot to depose Elizabeth is merely one of numerous attempts on her life. Unfortunately, the exact relationships among the various conspirators -- indeed, who even is a conspirator -- are inadequately established, and many of the historical events that make up the plot are hard to follow, leaving the viewer increasingly confused. Bowing to the pleas of her chief advisor Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough), Elizabeth goes to war against France. After a humiliating defeat, she realizes that she must not only seek better counsel, but more important, that she must follow her own instincts. As a result, she increasingly turns for advice to Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush, from Shine), her master of spies, and to a lesser extent, to her lover Lord Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes, brother of Ralph).
Elizabeth's relationship with Dudley is a pivotal part of the story, and while Fiennes does a fine job here, it is hard to erase the memory of his brother, who starred opposite Blanchett in Oscar and Lucinda. The roles the actors play in Elizabeth are, of course, completely different from the characters in the earlier picture. In fact, Joseph actually carries off his part better than Ralph did, but nothing in Elizabeth can compare with the expressions of absolute longing that passed between Ralph Fiennes and Blanchett in the earlier film.
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In the end, Elizabeth sacrificed potential personal happiness -- marriage and children -- to commit herself totally to leading her country. Her metamorphosis from girl to woman, from inexperienced princess to invincible queen, is in many ways the ultimate female empowerment story.
The film works as well as it does because Blanchett makes Elizabeth such an accessible figure for contemporary audiences. Her Elizabeth conveys a combination of vulnerability and strength, intellect and instinct, with which today's moviegoers can readily identify -- qualities that, in fact, define extraordinary individuals of any historical period. There is nothing anachronistic about her performance, nor are there any modern flourishes that might belie the period being depicted. Elizabeth's story also encompasses a dilemma faced by many present-day women: choosing between career and personal life. Her case was extreme. Not only did she give up Dudley, but she also refused proposals of marriage from both the French Duc d'Anjou and Queen Mary's widower King Philip II of Spain; marriage to either man would have have done much to secure her kingdom.
Director Shekhar Kapur (1994's Bandit Queen) stages the film well enough, considering how little physical action actually transpires, but along with screenwriter Michael Hirst, Kapur must shoulder responsibility for the movie's confusing chronology. Blanchett's performance, as well as the beautiful costumes and fine production design, make Elizabeth worthwhile -- it's hard to beat shooting in castles and manor houses that date back to William the Conqueror -- but as a history lesson, or even as an enthralling historical thriller, the picture proves disappointing.
Directed by Shekhar Kapur. With Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston and Joseph Fiennes.