The Once and Future Queen

Article excerpt

Byline: Jonathan Darman

Elizabeth's imperiled England is a lot like the America Clinton could well wind up leading.

Queens are meant to be looked at, not touched. Early in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" (in theaters now), England's Elizabeth I, played by Cate Blanchett, is bored by a bad date. Watching, at close range, is a flock of curious courtiers; her suitor, a stuttering Continental royal, is clearly terrified by the mob. Ever gracious, the queen offers some advice. Her secret for life in the public eye, she tells her companion, is to pretend she lives behind "a pane of glass." It keeps her safe, cuts her off from the crowd. "They can't touch me," she says. "You should try it."

Strip away the stunning costumes, and the Virgin Queen's imperiled England looks a lot like America now. Bitterly divided at home, the nation vacillates between two dynasties. Threatened by dark forces abroad, it worries that a decisive moment is coming when one great empire will rise and another will fall. Struggling to maintain her femininity, a female leader seeks to prove she can rule as well as any man. Watching "Elizabeth," viewers' minds may drift to Hillary Clinton, quite possibly the next president of the United States, a woman who often seems to live behind her own plate of glass.

"Elizabeth" underscores brilliantly how simple-minded, how often irrelevant, our discussions of women and power can be. In one scene, the queen's astrologer stumbles after referring to "princes of the female gender," and quickly corrects himself: "princes who happen to be female." Elizabeth is barely listening. All too often, we sound like that astrologer: how many column inches have already been wasted on what title ("First Gentleman"? "First Husband"?!? "First Laddie"?!?!) Bill Clinton will hold if his wife wins the White House? Could anything possibly matter less?

Elizabeth's sad woman warrior -- triumphant and tragic, honored through the ages but never tenderly loved -- is a familiar type. Indeed, we command female leaders to fit into it. We remember the Margaret Thatcher who told George H.W. Bush in the lead-up to the first gulf war it was "no time to go wobbly." We revere, in retrospect, the second Queen Elizabeth who, in the wake of Princess Diana's death, stood behind her palace walls, the last Briton with a stiff upper lip. And we watch Clinton, a shrewd politician, always careful to keep her emotions hidden, as she seeks the highest office in the land.

All this concealing sometimes makes Clinton seem cold and robotic. But "Elizabeth" reminds us how hard it might be for Clinton to show her emotions. …