Blanchett, Cate, Fiennes, Joseph, Rush, Geoffrey, Commonweal
I don't know which historians director Shekhar Kapur and writer Michael Hirst consulted while making Elizabeth, but it's quite clear that they must have seen The Godfather at least forty-seven times. For that's what this rendition of the rise of the Virgin Queen is: Michael Corleone in Tudor drag. Both movies portray the triumph of their protagonists as spiritual catastrophes. Like Michael, Elizabeth has power thrust upon her and finds herself hemmed in by the hatred of powerful enemies, the treachery of itchy subordinates, the vacillation and incomprehension of relatives, friends, and lovers. Like Michael, Elizabeth relies in the end only upon the most ruthless of her counselors, in her case the espionage master Francis Walsingham, to crush her foes and ensure her survival. The scene in which the Queen sets aside the moderate Lord Cecil in favor of Walsingham is just like Michael rejecting the peacemaking counsels of Tom Hagen when mob warfare breaks out, though "I'm sorry, Tom, you're out" is a lot less salving than "I name you Lord Burleigh to honor your retirement." The moment when Corleone spares his unreliable brother, Freddo, has its Elizabethan equivalent when the queen grants her beloved, false Robert Dudley, his life: both tyrants put their loved ones in limbo. And, finally, like the Don, Elizabeth finds that power has led her into total isolation.
But there is one decisive difference between the two movies: religion. In the Corleone saga, religion was set aside as something that grown men didn't bother with: "Religion is for women and children," Don Vito advised his son. In Elizabeth, religion is what all the fuss is about. The young Elizabeth, at least as Michael Hirst writes her, is a rather anachronistic humanist who wants to live and let live, pray and let pray. Her counselors know better. She must either embrace the Catholic faith that her predecessor and half-sister, "Bloody Mary," was trying to restore, or she must uproot it, along with all the nobles who still espouse it. After struggling to do neither, she turns Walsingham loose, heads roll, England becomes unalterably Protestant.
What is it that both Michael and Queen Bess lose for the sake of power? Normalcy: the joys of quotidian, sensual existence. At his tale's beginning, Michael is a decorated soldier with a pretty girl on his arm whom he hopes to marry while keeping clear of his father's "business." At the beginning of Elizabeth, we meet a princess who enjoys life, has a lover (Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester), and takes more delight, even after ascending the throne, in dancing with her courtiers than in scheming with them. But, just as Michael will soon sit alone in darkness, Queen Elizabeth will embalm herself in whiteness (a pasty mask under a red wig) to guarantee her solitude and untouchability as the Virgin Queen.
Even here, there is a distinction to be made. Michael sacrifices himself for his "family" (both his immediate family and the extended Mafia clan), but, by the end of the second Godfather film, he has lost all his loved ones to death or estrangement. Yet he continues to wheel, deal, and destroy because he has become pure will, pure greed, pure appetite. In short, a monster. (The semi-redeemed Michael of Godfather III doesn't work for me.) But the Elizabeth that bids farewell to joy at the end of Kapur's movie is no monster but a martyr. She realizes that some of her people, forbidden to honor the mother of God, still need a holy virgin. She substitutes herself. It's not an act of ego but a patriotic transcendence of the ego that destroys her private life and stifles her sensuality.
It doesn't matter whether Elizabeth works as history or not. Even with my sketchy knowledge of the period, I noticed all sorts of temporal telescopings and some pretty hazy speculations (the death of Leicester's wife, for instance). This movie is first-rate only as sheer entertainment, less sweeping but also less stiff than Kenilworth, more feral and less politically complex than Robert Bolt's play, Vivat, Vivat Regina!, and - thank God! - less bombastic than Maxwell Anderson's Elizabeth the Queen. Shekhar Kapur uses screen images the way a poet-playwright uses verbal ones: each has its own momentary vigor but gains additional strength and meaning when reinforced later in the narrative by a similar yet contrasting image. Two examples:
The first powerful image in the film is that of Protestants going to the stake, their heads shaved, or sliced rather, for we are gruesomely shown that the razors cut through scalps as well as hair. The horror of these murders is chillingly conveyed. At the end of the film, therefore, when we see Elizabeth having her own strawberry blond hair hacked off so that she may don the garish red wig of the Virgin Queen, we realize that this transformation, though infinitely less horrible than that of the tortured Protestants, is also a martyrdom.
When Princess Elizabeth, after living for years as a political prisoner in the shadow of the executioner's block, is called to step outside her quarters in order to receive a messenger, the entire screen is flooded by whiteness. Then, the image restored, we see the messenger kneeling before her. Again, the screen goes to white. The next thing we see and hear is the messenger telling Elizabeth that she is queen of England. These white-outs seem to promise the heroine that all the travails of her past are wiped out, that the future holds a new and happy life. But, of course, things don't work out that way. After the mature Elizabeth, embracing both her doom and her glory, has transformed herself into the Virgin Queen, the courtiers await her entrance. The screen nearly goes to white again as light pours through the doorway where the queen is entering. But, this time, the whiteness isn't total, for Elizabeth steps into it, and the courtiers, both thrilled and appalled, drop to their knees at the sight of her. The past hasn't been wiped out but the future has been arrogated, and the body of a spirited young woman has been usurped by an omnipotent crone.
Like Jean Simmons in Young Bess (1953) and Glenda Jackson in the first episode of the TV series "Elizabeth R," Cate Blanchett gets to play the queen in her pre-carapace, pre-icon days and, unlike them, she is at the exactly right moment in her life to do so. (Simmons was too callow; Jackson, wonderful in the later episodes, too mature.) Her voice is simply well-trained and bright rather than memorable, but her acting is supple, responsive, alive, and complex. She knows how to say much with a single gesture, as when she sighs with relief and straightens her back once the heavy royal ermine is lifted off her shoulders after the coronation. Crucially, Blanchett understands that the Elizabeth of this movie is a creature of potential, whose life force could have brought her a lifetime of joy but, under the circumstances, makes her a sleepless and conscientious tyrant.
The entire cast supports Blanchett admirably, especially Joseph Fiennes (Ralph's brother and with a voice better than Ralph's), every inch the Elizabethan buck as Dudley, and Richard Attenborough, who nicely captures the worried dignity of Lord Cecil. But the jewel of this cast is Geoffrey Rush as Walsingham. Coming after his poignant David Helfgott in Shine and an electrifying Javert in Les Miserables, this performance secures Rush's place in the pantheon of Great Actors Who Will Never Become Stars Because of Their Weird Looks. This Walsingham carries murderousness within himself as if it were a sacred mystery to be inflicted only on those who deserve the most choice and exquisite of tortures. Interrogating a priest suspended from a dungeon's ceiling, he sidles close to his victim as if he himself were a priest about to hear confession.
And, believe me, the Catholics in this movie deserve Walsingham at his worst. What a crew! The fanatic Queen Mary, mistaking her cancer for pregnancy; a Spanish ambassador-bishop, whose manners are as oily as his hair; a pope, portrayed by John Gielgud as an elderly serpent, dispatching an assassin directly from the Vatican; the assassin himself, a sturdy young priest dashing out the brains of boy spies against the rocks of Dover; the gloweringly obdurate Lord Norfolk, fantasizing the destruction of Elizabeth as he thrusts himself into the body of his equally sinister mistress.
So is this movie anti-Catholic? Yes, but only for the sake of melodrama, not doctrine. The forces of Catholicism and Protestantism are seen strictly as rival gangs, not agents of the divine. But Our Gang is always favored over the gangs from the other neighborhoods. And, since Anglicanism has been the state religion for over three hundred years, the Protestants are Our Gang for these British filmmakers. That's why Elizabeth gambols in sunlight, while Bloody Mary rots in the El Greco shadows of a crypt-like throne room, attended by Spanish dwarfs and skulking father confessors.
Elizabeth is history as mob warfare, and Cate Blanchett's Bess is the most beautiful and magnetic Lady Scarface you could ask for.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Elizabeth. Contributors: Blanchett, Cate - Author, Fiennes, Joseph - Author, Rush, Geoffrey - Author. Magazine title: Commonweal. Volume: 125. Issue: 22 Publication date: December 18, 1998. Page number: 14+. © 1999 Commonweal Foundation. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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