Still riffing on the historical fiction film podcast by Megan and Kristin, Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998) was specifically mentioned in the podcast as one of their favorites. And once again, based on anecdotal evidence from conversations with others, Elizabeth seems to be well-appreciated as a film, especially as a performance by Cate Blanchett. In this retrospection, we look as this film as another sub-genre within historical fiction, the biographical picture, or biopic.
As the title suggests, the film is about Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen who reigned from 1558-1603. This film takes a look at her early years, just before she becomes queen. It interprets her as a young woman, prone to love, mistakes, and insecurities. And we as the audience travel with her, knowing the story well: she is the virgin queen, destined to rule England, alone and into glory. Shakespeare might appear in the film just as sure as the Armada might.
In this particular biopic, Elizabeth is besotted by Joseph Fiennes’ portrayal of Robert Dudley, known to history as the Earl of Leicester. As the sometimes overshadowed Fiennes sibling, he does quite well playing the lover, as he does in another Elizabethan film from the same year Shakespeare in Love. However, in this film, he is deceitful towards Elizabeth, concealing his first marriage from her. Historically, Elizabeth knowingly carried on with Dudley despite his wife. Scholars debate the depth of their intimacy, but he would continue to be a favorite of hers until his death. This is very different from writer Michael Hirst’s interpretation in which Dudley’s marriage was a shock to the her and forever relegated him outside of her inner circle. In actuality, they were imprisoned at the same time in the Tower of London, a fact which solidified their deep affection for each other in Helen Mirren’s portrayal of the queen in Elizabeth I (2005) a T.V. biopic which is much more historically accurate. This accuracy makes the television interpretation much more compelling and interesting. In Hirst’s rendition, Elizabeth’s tumult with Dudley propels her towards virginity which actually dilutes the complexity of the historical figure, only for the purpose as a plot device.
Queen Elizabeth I as a subject is repeated often in both the silver and small screen. Bette Davis in particular creates two masterful performances of her. The first with Errol Flynn in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex in 1939, a year unparalleled in cinematic history. The second in The Virgin Queen(1955). It would unfair to make a comparison of the portrayals of Blanchett and Davis, as each Elizabeths are in very different stages in their lives, and it might be unfair to compare Bette Davis to any other actress in history. There are numerous other films about her in nearly every decade of cinema, even in the 1920s.
But, like any well-crafted historical fiction film, Kapur’s story must somehow surprise us with a tale anew and provide the audience with a glimpse of something previously unknown. This ‘new take’ on the ‘Elizabeth story’ begins at the onset.
Though the film centers on Elizabeth, the woman who becomes England’s most famous queen, the film starts with the burning of religious martyrs. It would be easy to conceive of the film as a posing of the question, “What would one die for?” since people seem to die in droves from the very first. In fact, there’s a moment where Kapur seems to be making a reference to The Godfather (1972) in a montage where Elizabeth’s traitors are rounded up resemblant of Michael Corleone’s baptism scene. It happens around the same time in Kapur’s film as it does in Coppola’s and with the same dramatic intention.
But this initial question is merely a superficial glance. As the opening scene shows, the martyrs are reciting scripture as their heads are brutally shaved and they are prepared for execution. The scene is repeated very nearly at the end of the film, less brutally, more tragically somehow as Elizabeth’s head is shaved so she can become the icon we know her to be today. As bookends to the story in between, the question is not about what one would die for. Rather, the question Kapur asks his audience is “What would you sacrifice?”. Elizabeth sacrifices her sexuality, motherhood, marriage, happiness, and companionship all to the benefit of her country, which is exactly for what she is most remembered. Dudley in the film sacrifices his love through a treasonous betrayal. And throughout the film, individuals sacrifice themselves for their faith, just as the original martyrs in the first film sequence. This more interesting question is a new interpretation, accessible to a larger, more modern audience, who in the late nineties has less to ‘die for’ and more they were being asked to sacrifice.
Filmically, there’s some particular choices by Kapur, namely that he slows down the film speed as Elizabeth dances with Dudley just after she is made queen. After that, there is no interruption to film speed, perhaps as a subconscious note to the viewer that they are experiencing Elizabeth’s rise in real time, rather than as something of the past. He also has specific lighting choices, using bright, open spaces for Lady Elizabeth, and dark, cavernous spaces for her as Queen. This is interrupted when she emerges as the Virgin Queen in the film ending, walking out from bright white light, likely a heavy-handed reference to her becoming the Virgin Mary to her people.
Ultimately, it is a well made film with deliberate choices. Though it takes a major historically inaccurate detour in the Elizabeth/Dudley story, the majority of the film is rooted in historical accuracy. Like many other historical films, it engages its viewer by trying to suspend disbelief about a well-documented outcome. And since it focuses on a singular subject, this biopic does well to re-introduce Queen Elizabeth I to a modern audience. For it being a historical fiction biopic, the film also does quite well commercially and catapults Blanchett to mainstream fame and a reprise in the same role in 2007. Speaking of which…
Fear not. I shall review the sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age upon my return.