Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth, a not-quite-historical epic about the coming to power of Queen Elizabeth I of England, is a visual tour-de-force from beginning to end. Starting with the opening credits, Elizabeth exists on a kinetic and geometrical plane with such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Godfather, Taxi Driver and Kundun.
The opening sequence, in which three Protestant heretics are publicly executed, is stunningly choreographed, shot, and concluded. Rarely does an opening sequence so effectively make you sit up straight, gasp in surprise, mentally recoil in horror, and admire its beauty at the same time. By the time it's over, which is relatively quickly, we know the darkest forces in the world in which Elizabeth must assume power and can hardly wait to see if she can stand up against their onslaught. All of the images of Elizabeth speak a language of their own in counterpoint and complement to the film's events.
Of the films mentioned above, Elizabeth probably owes the most to The Godfather. Both feature young protagonists who must subvert their individuality to a greater cause (family loyalty for Michael Corleone, religious belief for Elizabeth), and who are then seduced into worlds of intrigue and violence by the subtle and unsubtle attractions of power and the need for self-preservation and success. (Elizabeth also directly references the multiple revenge montage from The Godfather.)
Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) is a sixteen-year-old Protestant princess, the daughter of Henry VIII and sister of the Catholic queen, Mary (Kathy Burke), when the story opens. She is cast aside, but seemingly happy, greeting her childhood sweetheart, Robert Dudley (Hunky heartthrob Joseph Fiennes--any relation? I dunno. But I think it's pronounced the same. Also, he has enough chest hair on his neck to make a robe.) when he returns from exile with several other prominent Protestants in anticipation of the Queen's death.
The rest of the story is how Elizabeth, a monarch not expected to last long, consolidates her power, holds her enemies at bay, and tests the loyalty of her closest advisers and friends with the supreme question: "What have you done to help me survive another day lately?"
Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth is magnificent, regal, and commanding. We sympathize with her when she must make moral choices when survival is job one and there simply aren't any good choices. Her joy is so rare that when she smiles, we are enormously relieved. The costumes and makeup effects are so good that we journey with Elizabeth from a girl of sixteen to the hardened woman mask she earns.
Sir Richard Attenborough, as Sir William Cecil, is the main standout besides Blanchett. His portrayal of Elizabeth's closest adviser is sincere, shrewd, and touchingly pathetic in the end. Geoffrey Rush is cold menace as bodyguard and adviser Sir Francis Walsingham.
I did have some problems with the film. A scene in which Elizabeth and Robert Dudley make fools of themselves on a lake is contrived; it simply wouldn't have happened that way, I don't care how drunk on booze or love they were. The scene in which Elizabeth and Walsingham contemplate the media campaign of the Catholic Church plays like the panel from "Batman" #1 where Bruce Wayne thinks, "That's it! I'll become a bat!"--though it does have a stunning payoff. Also, Sir John Gielgud as the Pope has nothing much to do, though he stamps his papal fatwah with some ancient glee.
Elizabeth is not a perfect film by any means, though I expect serious Oscar contention for Cate Blanchett, and it more than earns its tragic arc. There are moments and images never to be forgotten.
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