Posted: 08/19/1999




by Del Harvey

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Intrigue and treachery guide this lush film of the crowning and political maturity of England’s “virgin” queen, Elizabeth I. An outcast of her own family, an independent thinker, and perhaps the worst of her sins—a non-Catholic, Elizabeth is saved from a life in the dungeons by virtue of the fact that she is a woman and can thus bear children. Her sister’s untimely death before producing a “proper male heir” is her saving grace.

Elizabeth’s teenage life is quite simple and serene, with nothing to challenge her obviously high intellect more than innocent children’s games, her studies of the arts, and the pure joys of young love as personified in the supple form of a lusty Joseph Fiennes. Suddenly Elizabeth is thrust into the role of Queen, on the very day her sister dies, and the transformation as played by Cate Blanchett is revealing of a knowledge of the strength in this legendary figure that is remarkable for an actor of any age or experience. Blanchett presents a child-woman who is aware of the multifaceted dangers awaiting her ascendance to the throne.

Once crowned there seems to be no safe harbor for Elizabeth. Richard Attenborough is advisor Sir William Cecil, an elder statesman who means well but is too old to stand up to the church, any church, and their attendant fanatics. He ends up doing her more harm than he can help. At some level he must realize this, for he hires the talents of ruthless assassin Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), and it is the last wise decision he makes. As to Fiennes, his love is questionable when it is discovered that he has a wife which no one has seen, and it cannot be determined to what extent he is in love with the woman or the Queen’s newfound power. The remainder of her court seems to be holding very sharp daggers behind their collective backs. Scenes taking place among the court reveal a moveable background of characters who seem to care only for the drama of the event; it is easy to imagine their placing bets just before each scene as to whether or not their new Queen will survive. Their presence also serves as a very real reminder of how little private life any political leader has.

The new Queen is pressured to marry right from the very start of her reign. Her advisors use this ploy as an attempt to empower their personal religions. Elizabeth cannot let go of her young love Fiennes and refuse all courtiers, including the obviously gay Italian prince whom she catches in women’s clothing while dallying with several young men and their Vienna sausages.

When the threat against her life becomes much too obvious to ignore, Walsingham moves from the shadows in very effective and dramatic ways, and soon becomes her sole confidant and main supporter. Rush’s portrayal is reminiscent of a young Vincent Price is some of his early costumed roles, full of cunning and an innate sense of survival. His character is played as unpredictably as every other, and this particular choice on the part of the director is perfect in its definition of the Queen’s absolute need for self-reliance and fierce independence.

Blanchett is perfect as the woman-child who must learn to rule her country without losing her soul. The depth and understanding she displays are truly astounding to watch. She was nominated for an Academy Award for this role, and should have won.

Rush, Fiennes, Attenborough, and the remainder of the cast are equally perfect. Under director Shekhar Kapur’s guidance, ELIZABETH is a complete film experience, a vivid presentation for the eye, and deserving of many viewings.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He lives in Chicago and is a devout Bears fan, and therefore deserving of our sympathy.

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