It's long past time for a worthwhile historical film, particularly one that takes as its subject the larger-than-life British royal succession as the country emerged from the Middle Ages. Somehow the romance of Scotland, featuring men who wear kilts into battle -- the wretched 'Braveheart,' with Mel Gibson in his mini-kilt comes to mind -- has tarnished the image that most recently (almost 30 years ago) Glenda Jackson's powerful BBC series on Elizabeth I brought to life.
But the new Elizabeth, with the remarkable Australian actress Cate Blanchett as the young woman taking both the crown and control of the country while learning to operate in a nest of vipers, is a fascinating portrait of wonderfully dark doings in a time of political upheaval. Written by the American Michael Hirst, and directed by the Indian filmmaker Shekhar Kapur -- his first English language film -- Elizabeth, which might well be subtitled 'The Early Years,' carries us from her imprisonment in the Tower by her older half-sister Mary Tudor, as a way of keeping her from the throne, through the years of an almost Jacobean torrent of murders, assassinations, plots, and counterplots, leaving us finally at the moment when she truly assumes the crown. "I am once again a virgin," she announces.
Though not strictly true to history, as Salon magazine critic Laura Miller points out in the most perceptive review I've read to date, this is nonetheless a marvelous glimpse into mid-sixteenth-century court life. Elizabeth begins by facing the legacy of her father, Henry VIII, who took England away from the Catholics; she is now confronted by a pope and clergy who will kill her to restore the church. Advised to marry -- either a French or a Spanish royal, it doesn't seem to matter -- in order to form, as they say, a more perfect alliance, she follows her own instinct and chooses neither.
In love with Robert Dudley, who for the purposes of this film has neglected to tell Elizabeth that he is already married -- a clinker of a plot point that nearly undoes much of the film, since anyone with a brain would have known and told her the truth -- Elizabeth comes to devote her time to statecraft. Critics have described her character as a version of Michael Corleone, ordering murders hither and yon in order to consolidate her power, but it's a bad analogy. Michael was a man without qualities, or rather he was a man who as he gained power lost his own moral compass, and so became by the end, with the famous lie to his wife, and the slowly closing door, the most monstrous person of all. Elizabeth, in this film, shows none of that; she sets out from the start a forthright moral stance and she is faithful to it through the time period covered here.
Geoffrey Rush, as her advisor Walsingham, in the kind of role that Basil Rathbone defined for all time, has the dark voice and calmly knowing manner that can handle treacherous nobles and murderous Papists with dispatch. He's a pleasure to watch. Joseph Fiennes, as Robert Dudley, has to deal with a one-dimensional role, underwritten but overlong, for he seems to spend much of his time, and ours, dancing at court with Elizabeth.
Director Kapur, known here only for his remarkable re-created documentary 'Bandit Queen,' about the Untouchable who led a peasant revolt in the 1960s and 70s against the caste system in her province -- and later was elected to parliament -- has directed for atmosphere and mystery. Using available (candle and torch) lighting wherever he could, he's given us the kind of glimpse into 16th century court life, with its cold, dark corridors and bleak stone rooms, that makes us shudder even as we watch.
But the hero of all is Blanchett. She is believable, charismatic, lovable, vulnerable at first, then gaining in confidence as she matures. One of the great sequences of the film is watching her as she prepares her speech to the assembled bishops, laying out her position as sovereign. Kapur gives us quick closeup jump cuts of her as she tries out different lines in rehearsal, then takes his time as she meets them, stumbles, then finds herself. One fine moment among many in this very good film.