Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Reign Check 

Wednesday, Nov 18 1998
Directed by Shekhar Kapur. Written by Michael Hirst. Starring Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, and Joseph Fiennes. Opens Friday, Nov. 20, at the AMC 1000 Van Ness.

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 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, the 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 of whom 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 -- is inadequately established, and many of the historical events that make up much of the plot are hard to follow, leaving the viewer increasingly confused. Bowing to the pleas of her chief adviser, Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough), Elizabeth goes to war against France. After a humiliating defeat, she realizes she must not only seek better counsel, but, more important, 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, as well as to, although to a lesser extent, 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, and, 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.

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 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.

About The Author

Jean Oppenheimer


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"