Whiggish History for Contemporary Audiences. Implicit Religion in Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age

By Prieto-Arranz, José Igor | Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

Whiggish History for Contemporary Audiences. Implicit Religion in Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age


Prieto-Arranz, José Igor, Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies


Introduction

In a rather poignant way, Levin starts her review of Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth (E, 1998) by comparing it to Kenneth Brannagh's Henry V and claiming the following: "Henry V works as both modern film and historical drama. Elizabeth, all too often, does not."1 Levin's status as a historian brings to mind the difficult relations between the fields of film and history. As Chapman has aptly put it, "[t]he points of contention between historians and filmmakers often focus on the most pedantic details and the exchanges can be highly amusing [...], those feature films that challenge received wisdoms about the past [...] com[ing] in for the most severe criticism."2 Indeed, from the standpoint of film studies, historians are widely perceived to be obsessed with "the accuracy of historical films in dealing with [the past in which they are set]."3

In this light, it is hardly surprising that Kapur's historically inaccurate production (see below) should have been the target of historians' diatribes. Yet, and irrespective of what historians might say on the matter, audiences worldwide may quite easily regard Shekhar Kapur's otherwise genre-defying4 E and its sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age (TGA, 2007) primarily as historical films since not only are they "based, however loosely, on actual historical events or real historical persons" but they also rely on "historical verisimilitude,"5 which consists in "appear[ing] to [engage with historical issues] in a factual manner."6

What makes historical films interesting is that these are "as much about the present in which they are made as they are about [the] past in which they are set."7 In the light of this, this article will discuss Kapur's Elizabeth films following Giroux "critical methodology"8 guidelines, thus relating both films to not quite so much English or British history but "popular memory," national identity and their connection with "implicit religion."9 Thus, and considering the fact that audiences in much of the Western world "can justify their personal pursuit of spiritual satisfaction outside the walls of a religious institution, "10 the present article aims at making a contribution to the expanding yet still recent body of scholarship analysing the relationship between film and religion.11

The growth of this field is hardly surprising. After all, the appeal and power of its visual component provides film with a potential to influence audiences which other media lack.12 The study of film and religion is made to look even more natural by Wright, for whom "religion, like film, is in part an aesthetic discourse [...]. "[R]eligion is (amongst other things) a narrative-producing mechanism, and in this respect can be likened to both literature and the cinema."13

The growth of the field has also been linked to the rise of interdisciplinary approaches favoured by "new" branches of academic knowledge like cultural studies.14 There are even those that claim that religion studies have taken a "cultural turn,"15 while film studies have most definitely also been affected by cultural studies. More specifically, the study of film developed under the umbrella of cultural studies no longer focuses on the analysis of the film text per se but also brings in two more variables: context (the circumstances surrounding the creation of the text) and audience (including the potential effect of the text on those that consume it).16

Inspired by cultural studies, my standpoint will differ from that of historians in that I shall not focus exclusively on "the accuracy of [these] historical films in dealing with early-modern Britain."17 Yet this representation of the past remains important. As stated above, a characteristic of historical films as a genre is historical verisimilitude and, as a consequence, audiences "expect [them] to be accurate;"18 what is more important, historical films, unlike other media genres,19 do not commonly address historical theory issues, and yet remain "the primary medium by which people learn about the past. …

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