Elizabeth (15)

Directed by Shekhar Kapur
Starring Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Joseph Fiennes, Christopher Ecclestone, Kathy Burke, Eric Cantona, Daniel Craig, Richard Attenborough.

Costume dramas have a name for being all posh frocks and dialogue, but this is one of the most ominous and threatening, and downright creepy and unsettling films I have seen in a while. It is the story of Queen Elizabeth I, from her carefree teenage days, through the trauma of her early years. What is most memorable is the atmosphere of danger and intrigue. Elizabeth doesn't know who she can trust and keeping track of the many characters requires concentration.
The film opens with brutal scenes as three Protestant martyrs are burnt at the stake as we meet Old Queen Mary(Kathy Burke), clinging to her throne, an over-zealous Roman Catholic, Proddy hater. Half mad, she is however unable to order the death of her half sister Elizabeth, despite her lack of Papal love. Her advisors are led by the Duke of Norfolk (Ecclestone) and are keen to rid England of the heretics. Young Elizabeth accedes to the throne, and a turbulent period follows. Advised by Norfolk, Sir William Cecil(Dickie Attenborogh) and her beau Robert Dudley(Fiennes), she orders a doomed attack on Mary Queen of Scots troops. The defeat places her just where Norfolk and co want her- vulnerable and weak. An alliance with Mary's foppish and outrageous French nephew is pushed by the French ambassador(yes that IS Eric Cantona) but a new face is one the scene to advise; the deadly Lord Francis Walsingham played by Geoffrey Rush. We first see him as an exile in France casually slitting the throat of a young man, and his role as Elizabeth's enforcer is an important one. The young idealistic girl is forced to alter her attitiudes after the betrayal of Lord Robert and numerous death threats. Sir John Gielgud makes a brief cameo appearance as the Pope who despatches a priest(Daniel Craig), with letters authorizing the taking of the English throne by force. Craig is another terminator-like killer, his first act on reaching England to bash a young man's brains out on the rocky shores of Dover. Nice. Eventually the tide turns on Elizabeth's favour, Walsingham goes rottweiler like for the Catholics and England draws away from Rome after Norfolk and his cronies are executed. Elizabeth becomes the virgin queen, ready to lead her country into peace and prosperity- alone.
Beautifully filmed, with extensive use of overhead shots, gloomy castles and grpahic violence, this is historical drama for the 1990s. Fantastic performances all round, a script full of intrigue and danger, romance, murder and even dancing! Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush- two Australians- stand out from the rest. Blanchett is wonderful as the young Elizabeth, forced into an impossible situation. However, she has sufficient steely depths to convince as the fledgling monarch. Rush shows that his performance in Shine was not a one off. He is clearly a powerful actor, and his subtly dangerous performance is compelling. Christopher Ecclestone is also very good and exudes a sense of menace. His Norfolk is another man not to be trifled with. Two great British actors, Richard Attenborough and John Gilegud are welcome performers. Gielgud must be in his 90s by now, but still has that wonderful voice. Attenborough has become better known as a celebrity, but it is good to see he can still turn his hand to his original trade. He is perfect as the well meaning and sincere Cecil. Joseph Fiennes (Ralph's brother) must beware he doesn't get typecast as sexy, sensitive but slightly weak characters. He is very appealing here, but his doe eyed look is already a familiar sight.
Like Ang Lee who directed Sense and Sensibility very successfully, Indian director Kapur's more detached and non-English view captures the time and society very well indeed. The Catholics and Protestants commit equally terrible acts of violence, and life is cheap. This is a rather grim and depressing film- it certainly makes me glad I didn't live in Elizabethan times or at the court during this turbulent period. The opulent trappings of the royal entourage, the troops of ladies in waiting and gentlemen of the court and the massive but gloomy castles are beautifully filmed. A compelling and gripping story, well told and well acted. 8/10.

October 1998

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