121 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, November 6, 1998
Directed by Shekhar Kapur
Starring Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Fiennes, Kathy Burke, John Gielgud, Richard Attenborough & Fanny Ardant
ON VIDEO: April 27, 1999|
SMALL SCREEN SHRINKAGE: 35%
LETTERBOX: IT WOULD HELP
Wall-to-wall lush visuals and minute nuances in Blanchett's performance don't lend themselves to the small screen. Watch in the most theater-like environment possible: Letterbox, lights off, biggest TV screen you can get your mits on.
Deft performances, deep story overshadowed by obtrusive style in "Elizabeth"
"Elizabeth" isn't your grandma's English historical epic. Forget all that "virgin queen" stuff and Bette Davis' 1939 and 1955 movies about the 16th Century monarch. This Elizabeth I biography is a cogent, complicated, layered and brutal story of political intrigue tinged with passions of both the heart and mind.
The treachery this queen faces from all quarters, the many attempts to undermine her monarchy that are eventually met with her own acts of treachery, the perception that she has no political security without marriage to foreign royalty, her subsequent determination to keep England autonomous by deliberately remaining sexless and symbolically adopting her famously frigid appearance -- no fictional story could be more fascinating.
And in such a rich historical biography, casting is of utmost importance.
Enter Cate Blanchett, the unconventionally beautiful and gifted actress who starred opposite Ralph Fiennes in last year's overlooked "Oscar & Lucinda." In her hands, Elizabeth is a potent, impassioned powerhouse, and through her performance the audience is privy to Elizabeth's every concealed desire and doubt, beginning with her girlish devotion to Robert, the Earl of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes, Ralph's little brother) during the events leading up to her accession to the throne after the death her venomous half-sister Mary (Kathy Burke).
But the queen's private weaknesses are only one facet of Blanchett's complete embodiment of her character, who may be a little insecure privately but is nothing if not politically savvy.
Marked by controversy and spite over her Protestant views, Elizabeth's long reign was at first extremely unstable and her clutch on power fleeting. The focus of this movie is on those early years when intrigue and conspiracy were rampant in her court and plots against her came from as far away as the Vatican. But no machination could best her determination to unify an England left ideologically divided after the death of her father, Henry VIII, who had founded the Church of England in defiance of the Pope.
But while fascinating in its historical perspective and insight, director Shekhar Kapur ("Dushmani") takes an ultra-modern approach in his presentation, a decision that certainly keeps one's attention with obtrusive, deftly symbolic camera work and quick-cut editing, but it's this of-the-moment style where the picture begins to unravel.
Entire scenes seem out of character for the mood of the film -- like shots of a Vatican spy skulking through castle shadows in action movie-style slow-motion, as if he were sneaking up on Bruce Willis (I dubbed him the Slow-Mo Priest of Doom), and Kapur's use of upside-down camera angles, meant to portray disorientation, that instead are so out of place they jar the audience out of the story.
At other times this seemingly slick director falls back on the most tedious of period movie gimmicks, like when Elizabeth and Robert have a serious talk in hushed voices about the status of their relationship -- while dancing in a ballroom scene. We've seen them have moments of privacy in several earlier scenes. Surely there was a more appropriate, and less cliched, place for this conversation to take place. The scene is almost laughable.
The modern pacing and technique do not do "Elizabeth" in by themselves. In fact, despite vivid characterizations and fascinating subjugations, the film often borders on the uninspired.
Visually, it shows sparks of brilliance with numerous scenes illustratively shot through cross-shaped windows and one ingenious take of Elizabeth being symbolically pulled in all directions at once as her attendants dress her and brush her hair.
Buttressed by the likes of John Gielgud, Richard Attenborough, Fanny Ardant (as France's royal woman warrior Mary of Guise), Geoffrey Rush (as Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's ruthlessly loyal right hand) and Christopher Eccelston (phenomenally menacing as Elizabeth's diabolical enemy, the Duke of Norfolk), Blanchett's unsurpassed turn as Elizabeth might be enough to float the film for serious Anglophiles.
But the director's fashionable filmmaking (backstory is presented during the opening credits in Gothic, Pop-Up Video-style paragraphs) and sometimes burdensome storytelling make "Elizabeth" more a mediocre movie of great performances, and a bit dry for thinking it's so clever.