January 18, 1999 -- "Elizabeth" is the latest in a long line of costume dramas about the British royalty, but it has all the elements of a soap opera, sex, intrigue, romance, conspiracies and murder.
There are so many murders and conspiracies, you need a scorecard to keep track of them all. You also need to be an expert in English history. I am certainly no expert in English history, but my wife has at least studied the subject and has an interest in the royal family, and even she was confused by the story. After looking at the official web page for this film ( Elizabeth the Movie) it really helped me to read the historical notes there (hit the "England" button). I wished I had read them before seeing the film.
At any rate, the story takes place at the end of the bloody reign of Queen Mary (who became known as "Bloody Mary"). Mary, a Catholic, was determined to stamp out the Protestants, unlike her father, Henry VIII, who had given them power because of his need for periodic divorces.
Mary, who hated Elizabeth, the illegitimate daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn, almost had her put to death when Mary found out she did not have long to live, but refused to sign Elizabeth's death warrant, effectively allowing Elizabeth to ascend the throne. The new queen (well played by Cate Blanchett) finds herself the leader of a dispirited and divided people, with a bankrupt treasury and virtually no army.
Elizabeth's most trusted adviser Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough of the "Jurassic Park" movies) tells her that her only chance to stay in power is to marry into the French or Spanish royal families, a choice she finds personally and politically unpalatable. After following wrongheaded advice to attack a French force occupying part of Scotland, she begins to rely on the advice of a new advisor Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush, star of "Shine").
It turns out that Walsingham is not only a very smart adviser, but he is one of the few people in the royal palace who is loyal to Elizabeth, for some unknown reason. He also turns out to be a very effective and deadly spy, who helps her destroy her enemies. It is a good thing she can trust Walsingham, because even her boyfriend, Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) turns out to be a dud.
Tired of being told she is "just a woman" she decides she will become self-reliant. In a grand gesture, she retires the well-meaning, but oft-mistaken Sir Cecil, telling him she figures she can do as well or better by making her own decisions. In a bloody sequence of events not unlike the "Godfather" films, Elizabeth's enemies are dispatched, but it takes a toll on her. She decides, in order to rule, she must become more like a man. She transforms herself in a memorable scene.
Thus Elizabeth takes on the mantle of the modern, liberated woman, but at a heavy personal cost. This theme is similar to that of director Shekhar Kapur's earlier film "Bandit Queen," which, by the way, is a better film than this one. While the acting is quite good and the costumes are impressive and some of the cinematography by Remi Adefarasin (who directed second unit photography for "The English Patient") is memorable, the story is not very compelling.
As far as English history goes, the film tries to cram so many events into so short a time it isn't very instructive in that regard, either. Overall, it is dark, brooding, depressing and bloody. It is a good argument for democracy and against both the divine right of kings and male chauvinism. It rates a C. If you really like these kinds of costume dramas, then you will, no doubt, enjoy this movie much more than I did.
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