"Elizabeth" Review
© 2000 Fontaine L.

History in textbooks is often dry, lifeless, flat. Take the reign of Queen Elizabeth of England, for example. Textbooks invariably describe her as the Virgin Queen, the queen who never married, the queen whom England loved as a mother during her forty-five years of reign. She had managed to quiet, or suppress, the restless religious conflicts for at least four decades. She had managed to avoid marriage despite urges, seemingly wanting to marry each suitor but never intending to marry any. The defeat of the Spanish Armada during her reign strengthened her position. She had a taste for the extravagant, and frequented the theaters of London. She loved her people, but was capable of being as ruthless as her father Henry VIII. And so on. The film "Elizabeth" tells the story of the first few months of the reign of this most fascinating queen in English history. And quite a dazzling story it tells.

Everyone is familiar with the circumstances during which Elizabeth came to the throne. The Bloody Mary, unable to produce a heir during her reign, relinquishes the throne to her Protestant-leaning half sister Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth Tudor was then only twenty-five. "Elizabeth" brings this simple transition to life, surrounding us with a maelstrom of emotions. The conspiracy and violence surrounding the questions of religion, loyalty, and the throne. The ineffectuality and tragedy of Bloody Mary on her death bed, the ruthlessness of Norfolk, the sweet innocence and determination of a bewildered Elizabeth. These are the circumstances during which Elizabeth became queen. I do not know how much of it is historically accurate, but it certainly makes the struggles of these long-dead royals more immediate, more poignant and interesting than any textbook ever could.

Thus is the spirit of the entire movie. Scholars can debate all they wish about the minute details of the film, but the average viewer is presented with an ambitious attempt to characterize the enigmatic Queen Elizabeth. The events during these few months at times fly by faster than the viewer (or Elizabeth, evidently) can digest, as the film struggles to explain Elizabeth's decision to become the Virgin Queen. I do not know whether Sir Robert really existed, but the character successfully humanizes the queen. This is one of the film's attempts to deal with the problem. Still, the events pass by in whirlwind and the viewer is left to fill in the details of Elizabeth's sometimes inexplicable changes of heart, and to imagine for themselves the consequences of the complicated interplay between religion and politics that the film could not possibly explain in two hours. It is a film primarily focused on feeling, despite telling a historic tale. It paints a poignant and fascinating, if not entirely accurate, portrait of Elizabeth and her closest subjects. It attempts to explain, if not entirely to satisfaction, the stormy circumstances surrounding the first few months of her reign. I only regret that there was not enough time in the film for them to explain much of Elizabeth's motives or thoughts. What remains are her actions and the results of the changes she goes through, though ambivalence is concealed. The film is flawed in this respect because it sometimes reaches to be overly bold, expansive, and dazzling in display. All the more fitting for the extravagance of the Elizabethan era, perhaps. But the film remains most eloquent and convincing during its quiet, poetic moments. Whereas during grander scenes or scenes of historical significance, the film can become slightly pretentious and overwrought with tragic choral music, it is the smaller moments between characters that are cherished. Between Elizabeth and Robert, or between Elizabeth and her maids. During these moments emotion practically oozes off the screen. They paint a more vivid picture of Elizabeth's existence than any scenes of active action ever could. The film owes these achievements to the masterful performance of Cate Blanchett, much more deserving of a statuette than Gwyneth Paltrow was, and Joseph Fiennes as Sir Robert, and the excruciating detail with which artists have recreated the look and feel of the beginnings of the Elizabethan era.

This, all part of the film's uncanny ability to quietly bring out what was most momentous about the era. The large, vacant spaces of the palace with its overwhelming architecture of religion and history, towering over the minuscule-looking Elizabeth. The ubiquitous presence of religion. The alternating predominant moods of red or black, festivity or morbidity. Courtship coupled with treachery; marriage coupled with death. In this sense "Elizabeth" is masterful in its recreation of atmosphere, of an era that was very much alive but very much fearful. Elizabeth, and "Elizabeth," reconciled these elements. During significant moments of Elizabeth's life, we become enveloped in glorious white, a fusion and mutual-annihilation of red and black. Destruction of past, present, church, state, romance, feeling; recombination into the Virgin Queen facade that was Elizabeth. England, here comes your queen.

Grade: B+ (First viewing, 6/23/00)