Rating -

Drama (UK); 1998; Rated R; 124 Minutes

Cate Blanchett: Elizabeth I
Geoffrey Rush: Sir Francis Walsingham
Christopher Eccleston: Duke Of Norfolk
Joseph Fiennes: Robert Dudley
Sir Richard Attenborough: Sir William Cecil

Produced by Tim Beuan, Liza Chasin, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Alison Owen and Mary Richards; Directed by Shekar Kapur; Screenwritten by Michael Hirst

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Written by DAVID KEYES

Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe have written stories less captivating than the ones that have been told in history books about Elizabethan England, the 140-year era that brought us renaissance art, poetry, and William Shakespeare. The period has been represented as a struggle between religious beliefs and political issues, all of which were the result of the monarchy that preceded King Henry VII. Henry VIII, his son and heir to England's crown, dragged the kingdom into a bitter war with Roman Catholicism, in attempt to break from them and begin the Anglican church. The Pope denied him of this request, and the struggle for the church's approval caused a great deal of pain and aggression both on the country and the people who domiciled it.

As time progressed and Henry VIII passed on, Mary assumed the throne with the determined objective to bring Catholicism back to England as the sole religion. During her short period of being queen, she, like Henry VIII, set her mind on her own beliefs which resulted in a severe distraction from the affairs of state. Her health, while slowly decaying, somewhat symbolized the condition of the entire country. If nothing else, her death would be the immediate cause of England's downfall.

In this decaying part of her ruthless life, history describes her as a vain, self-centered 'hussy' of a woman, who, despite the fact that she was near death, was determined to keep her half-sister, Elizabeth I, from inheriting the throne. She even went as far as having Elizabeth locked in the tower, threatened with a death warrant. A lord asks her in her final days, "for the love of God, will you leave your kingdom to a heretic?" Thus, the illegitimate, Protestant daughter of Henry VIII was crowned queen of England. She entered the monarchy an inexperienced, confused young woman who knew little about running a country, or succeeding in her political ambition. Her early decisions and actions were often mistakes and blunders, and even at a time when the Protestants seemed to be in control of her court, most believed that Elizabeth simply could not succeed as queen.

Time and time again, her loyal subjects warned her that, without marriage and production of an heir, her reign as queen would always be unstable. Elizabeth's instincts told her to refuse the suggestions, even though she was in love at the time, and as a result, she was proclaimed rightfully the "Virgin Queen" for the rest of her reign. The wars with the French and feuds with other neighboring countries were put to a halt by her developing sense of government. As we see it, since her court was no help, the whole healing process was simply an example of trial and error.

By the time Elizabeth's early years were far behind her, she had proven her court, and perhaps everyone of higher class in the country, wrong: yes, there were mistakes in the beginning, but seldom were they accompanied by more. Yes, blunders were obvious, but they were not repetitive. A more detailed example of the later years of her reign are chronicled in the recent "Shakespeare In Love," a movie that farces the whole concept of Shakespeare's struggle to write "Romeo & Juliet." Without a queen like this, how would the country have survived a recession and brought us people like Shakespeare?

The bards wrote about England's historical figures very often, and that's evident even today. Great kings like Henry IV were subjects of countless Shakespeare plays, as were evil, harsh kings such as Richard III. It's no wonder he never wrote one about Elizabeth: the complex struggles between the Protestants and Catholics were bitter enough to even confuse people such as himself. When I read about some of the more torturous things that went on in Elizabeth's early years, I was not only fascinated, but stunned.

There are several different versions of Elizabeth's story (thousands, probably), but the only things believable are the facts. To truly feel the passion and seduction of a time like this it's necessary to have been there ourselves to see it. Since technology does not permit time travel, the closest thing to experience these things as they were meant to experienced is, of course, the cinema.

That's where Shekar Kapur's "Elizabeth" comes in. It is a masterful exploration of the rich and fascinating world of Elizabethan England; the story of the Virgin queen, the court's rude luxury, and the atmospheric tones of life behind the castle walls scramble off the screen like deep hidden secrets of the past just waiting to be revealed. We see the tapestries, hear the echoes, examine the court, and feel the thrilling passion as it was meant to be felt. We watch the members of her court stride through the textured halls with the whistling air whipping through their costumes, revealing long veils and embroidery within them. If it is true, as a director once said, that our cinema is starved for new images, then Elizabeth has some of the most unique of its kind.

Renaissance artists had a thing for painting portraits of Queen Elizabeth centuries ago, and if you'd compare one to the moonlight skin of Cate Blanchet as she plays the queen, you'd swear they were the same person. That's how convincing Blanchet is as Elizabeth: the performance of a historical figure is the best Hollywood has seen since Madonna portrayed Evita, and should ensure her the Oscar.

She wouldn't be as magical, though, if it weren't for the magnificent script by Michael Hirst, which allows intact and on-the-spot dialogue.

For example, a scene involving the meeting of Elizabeth and her court contains some of the film's most influential lines. A court member says to her "Your majesty would end all these matters if she were to wed."

"But to marry who, your grace?" she replies. "Some say to marry of France, and others, Spain. I'm not sure how to best please you unless I marry one of each."

From that scene, to the moment when she boldly pronounces, "I am my father's daughter. I am not afraid of anything," the essence of real life is intact as much as possible. The feverency of emotional struggle both for Elizabeth and her country is evident, but never does it seem hopeless. By that point, our faith has already been placed in the queen, and therefore, we believe that she can get herself out of any problem.

The movie has a script similar in context to that of Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather," although it surpasses the film 10 times more in both design and concept. Even the stark, intense last scene of the film pays homage to the 1972 classic. Does that make it cliched? Naturally, but if such similar movies manage to hide their formulas behind curtains like the one's in England's castle, then you get spellbinding films like this. You really can't tell that the script has obvious directions.

"Elizabeth" supposedly strays from historical facts, and if history did not occur the way the movie represents it, maybe it should have. Things like Mary's death and the reasons for Elizabeth's "Virgin Queen" title were never really detailed properly in historical texts. I'm not even sure if they really happened. Here, they make the centuries-old story more fathomable.

The movie placed around 20th in the top critical successes of 1998, but of the five nominated films for Best picture, it's clearly the most influential and breathtaking. I placed it third on my top ten films of last year, but since it has remained on my mind for so long, maybe it should have been second (either way, though, no film was better than "Beloved" in 1998.) We know that the Academy Award is guaranteed to "Saving Private Ryan," but Cate Blanchett will be the definite winner for Best Actress; if she loses, I shall revolt from the Academy as much as I can.

Indian director Shekar Kapur allows us to examine history as it was meant to be examined, and for someone such as he, that's no small accomplishment. As a visual and emotional experience, every frame of "Elizabeth" is spellbinding.

1998, David Keyes, Cinemaphile.org. Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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