Reviewed by Elisa Francesca Roselli
(India/UK 1998) Rated G
Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Fiennes, Kathy Burke, Richard Attenborough
Directed by Shekhar Kapur Writing credits: Michael Hirst
Polygram * 124 minutes
It was remarked by Carl Jung, that women patients, during that part of their analysis that he called the process of individuation, often dreamed of Elizabeth I. For them, a historical figure had achieved the same status as the archetypes supplied to the collective unconscious by the legends and visions and mystical experiences of the whole human race. It is significant, in the context of this forum, that the flesh and blood person who attained this level of iconic force - appearing in times of psychic growth and turmoil as the emblem of the authentic female Self, struggling to consciousness and expression - was unmarried and childfree. I am grateful to Shekhar Kapur for making this genesis of "The Virgin Queen" the central theme of his sumptuous, viscerally enjoyable, and undeniably rather lurid historical melodrama.
This film is not overly concerned with the minutiae of history, accurately guessing that a modern audience isn't going to relate to the details of statecraft four centuries ago, so much as to good old bodice-ripping sex, violence, scheming villains, simplified tales of oppression and vengeance, proto-feminism, and gorgeous eye-candy both animate and inanimate. Apart from that, the strengths of this film are its performances and its racing pace. Its principal weakness is a confusing script, with so much treason and double-facedness that you have trouble following who is on what side and why at any one time. It has been compared to Patrice Chereau's offering of a few years ago, LA REINE MARGOT. The heaving-bosom formula is indeed similar, but that other work was frankly awful, incomprehensible and tedious over its more than three hour stretch. These mistakes were certainly not repeated.
New Zealander Cate Blanchett, in the title role, must be one of the most striking examples of "thinking man's crumpet" on the screen today (one of my male Cambridge companions mentioned how she had elicited as many erotic fantasies of conversations with Elizabeth as of getting under the canopy with her). Accustomed to the chiseled dryness of her features from publicity posters and stills, I was surprised at how lovely she is in motion - an opal-fleshed, titian-haired beauty as radiant as it is peculiar. She has these eyes that glitter with intelligence as they lock on to the camera - have you noticed how often the Hollywood definition of beauty involves a vagueness and dumb undirectedness of expression? - and the effect is startling, unseen on screen since Glenda Jackson was young. Needless to say, she is also a mighty actress. She does not give us a single, fixed interpretation of her role, but actually shows us an Elizabeth in dynamic evolution, from uncertain young princess, feeling her way through seas of vipers, to autonomous woman confident of her own competence to rule. One of my favorite scenes is when she is rehearsing her speech on the religious unification of her kingdom in front of her mirror, and comically keeps flubbing her emphases and lines. [Cozzi fan Tutti note: This is one of my favorite scenes as well] With a few allowances for circumstances, we've all been there.
As a thinking woman, rather than man, I went after this film for an altogether different crumpet, a shorn and bearded Christopher Eccleston, more stunning than ever in the role of the treacherous Duke of Norfolk. This potent British actor has confirmed his place as my ultimate screen idol. (Adolescent at heart, I have even edited out his photo on the poster from Winterbottom's JUDE to be my desktop wallpaper. We were discussing black comedies not long ago - some of you may have seen my favorite exponent of that genre, Danny Boyle's SHALLOW GRAVE, in which he gave his best performance to date as the shy, nerdy accountant turned psycho.) A baleful presence, gaunt in the shadows, with a glare that could blister paint, he is sufficiently terrifying in this role that another of my companions complained he haunted her in nightmares after the film. However, the role itself is not really well-written enough for such a master of ambiguity, and shows up one of the weaknesses of the script: the baddies are just simplistic one-dimensional baddies - beyond the kind of arrogance, vanity and power-hunger that can as easily accept religious martyrdom as pursue a throne, we never really find out what makes the character tick.
Other thinking women might prefer something softer, along the velvety lines of Joseph Fiennes, a Nicholas Hillyarde miniature come to life as the lover Elizabeth must sacrifice if she is to achieve her apotheosis and "be ruled by no man." Lacking the etiolated beauty of his brother Ralph, this Fiennes is also much warmer and more affecting as an actor. As in the recent SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (he must be getting tired of ruff collars and scene partners who snatch Oscar nominations from under his nose), he plays a man dazzled by a high-born lady whom he ultimately fails to hold. He is sufficiently sexy and vulnerable that you can feel how the sacrifice must smart for the Queen, in expunging this source of heat and pleasure from her bed.
Two other exceptional performances were from Kathy Burke as (Bloody) Queen Mary, Elizabeth's Catholic half-sister and predecessor, and Geoffrey Rush as Elizabeth's counselor and body-guard, Walsingham. I had never seen Kathy Burke before; I was surprised to learn that she is chiefly known as a British TV comedienne. This film shows us a Mary desperate to conceive, dying of cancer, incapable of understanding her role as Queen in any terms beyond the upholding of a patriarchal dogma and the transmission of a patriarchal dynasty. Bitter, jealous, but also panicked as she watches her biological clock and life running out together, she could be the standard-bearer for all the breeder cows we rant about here [Cozzi fan Tutti note: this review originally appeared in the alt.support childfree newsgroup], those who "would do anything" for a baby, because somehow their socialization has obstructed them from accessing any real female identity unconditioned by subservience to males and to reproduction.
Geoffrey Rush is the man who won an Oscar for his performance as the mad pianist in SHINE. I had to look this up - he is completely unrecognizable in this role, a dignified, melancholy supporter of unquestioning loyalty, which somehow manages to gleam steadfastly through all the tergivisations of the plot.
The latter could be summarized as follows: control Elizabeth, possess and colonize her womb, and you control England. Early on, she is informed by her chief adviser that her person and reproductive organs are the property of the State. Again, allowing for circumstances, isn't this tune something all women have heard in one of its myriad variations? Literally applicable to a16th century British monarch, this struggle for the property of one's own body and the control of one's own destiny is also the basic substance of contemporary reproductive politics, and serves to make the action relevant and significant to a modern audience. Obviously a mere woman, so weak of mind and body, cannot be allowed to wreak havoc on the country by ruling in her own right. She must be put under the tutelage of a man, but which one?
The factions jostle around her, murderously. There is her brother-in-law Phillip II of Spain, Mary's husband, to whose protection she initially owes her life and her succession to power. There is the French Duke of Guise, whose war-mongering aunt Mary of Guise (mother to Mary Queen of Scots; a blousy and over-mascaraed Fanny Ardant) has invaded Scotland and threatens the nation from the North. There is Norfolk (Eccleston), scheming with the Vatican to liquidate the heretic bastardess Elizabeth outright.
But then there is also the voice of her own sexuality, for alas, a woman's desire is a double-edged blade that can both liberate and enslave. It comes out imperatively in favor of her subject, Robert, Earl of Dudley (Fiennes), who himself then falls victim to the general pull of the machinations. So to protect herself and save her kingdom, Elizabeth must both outsmart the schemers - she is clever and tough so that part is relatively easy - and eventually forgo her own sexual joy, which is another matter. But this sacrifice and sublimation of energy give rise to Gloriana, the "Virgin Queen", and to a forty-four year reign that would be remembered as a Golden Age.
There is a violence warning on this film - many scenes are very gruesome and obliged me to look away - but I felt that it was justified, as it serves to remind us how high the stakes actually were. It's you who could burn to death as a heretic, you who could be suspended from the ceiling and tortured with branding irons on your orifices, you whose head could be chopped off with that enormous hatchet. There is something intimate, personal, direct about this violence that is miles away from the video-game mindlessness that you get in standard Hollywood fare, where the bodies and the gore are little more than patterns on the wall. It is re-invested with all its low-tech, tragic, emotional weight, a call to responsibility rather than to the lack of it.
Finally, as I know there are quite a few needlewomen and Creative Anachronists on the List [alt.support.childfree], a word about the costumes, by Alexandra Byrne (who also did Kenneth Branagh's HAMLET). The look of ELIZABETH is fabulous - in both senses of the word. Scene after scene is a feast for the eye and an inspiration to the needle, but if you want to pick on the anachronisms and improbabilities (in my younger days, as a fanatic of costume history, I would have done) then there is plenty to go on. There is way too much lurex and glitter, and not nearly as much leather and home-spun as you would expect, if the principle that form follows function, applying as much to Elizabethan dress as to modernist architecture, were being upheld.
So, for example, Elizabeth appears early on in a ravishing open-fronted gown of mouse-gray velvet with a stomacher and petticoat of flame orange fan-pleated silk. Needless to say, this combination of textures and colors is much more evocative of Fortuny circa 1910 than of 16th Century court life. But what the heck, it's still very pleasurable to look at.
Another of Elizabeth's gowns is of a brilliant gentian blue silk-satin that is rather patently of Asian origin, and can only be using an aniline mordant of the kind that came in mid 19th Century; there were scarcely any blues in that age of natural vegetal dyes, where the dominant shades were russets and berry-reds and ivories. The most characteristic textile decoration of the period, blackwork embroidery, with its black, discretely used gold and terracotta on white, scarcely makes an appearance. But there is some lovely handiwork. In the scene where she is rehearsing her Unification speech, Elizabeth wears a dreamy linen night-gown, embroidered white on white, with long raglan sleeves gathered in a cuff from the elbow down in tight and tidy box-pleats. (Overall, box-pleating is used so becomingly and successfully that I would hope to see the technique make a come-back - as I recall, it is fiddly but not especially difficult, rather like large-scale smocking.)
In addition, there were some very pretty hair arrangements, many of them dainty and inventive variations on the half-ponytail.
The video of ELIZABETH was just being released as I was catching the tail end of the showings on the wide screens. I really *do not* recommend viewing this dark and lavish production on video. Many of the scenes are filmed by candle-light, and would become frankly illegible on the small screen (remembering that the plot isn't always that easy to follow); on top of which you would miss too many of the beautiful details.
In sum, ELIZABETH is a great night out for escapism, with never a dull moment, and someone or something to lust after for almost all viewers.
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