I don’t know much about history, but I know what I like. And I do like Indian director Shekhar Kapur’s first English-language effort, which luridly imagines the early reign of England’s “virgin queen,” Elizabeth I. Splendid finery and severed heads, courtside chicanery and political assassinations — oh yes, good stuff indeed.
The film’s producers claim they tried to steer well clear of “the Merchant-Ivory approach,” starting with the hiring of a non-Western director. Kapur, who admits that he knew nothing about Elizabeth’s life when he accepted the assignment, took a crash course in Tudor history and tackled her story along with British screenwriter Michael Hirst. Kapur and Hirst juice things up a bit, paring dialogue to the necessities and making free use of such contemporary pleasantries as jump cuts and Godfather references. They’ve also chosen a decidedly macabre approach to the era, opening the picture with the burning of a trio of heretics and dwelling throughout on blood and shadow.

Some of this business is gratuitous and/or self-congratulatory, but Hirst has turned Elizabeth into a compelling hero for our times, detailing the events that influenced her growth from wide-eyed naif to chilly matriarch. Crucially, Cate Blanchett’s performance as the Queen is outstanding. She carries herself from bewilderment to cool self-assurance, allowing us to see the change in her demeanor as the doors inside of her head begin slamming shut, locking herself safely away from emotional entanglements. By the time she paints her face white, having announced that England is her only husband and finally taking to the screen in full Queenly regalia, she’s made us understand from exactly what sacrifices that sort of iconic self-confidence came. Blanchett may or may not be a close replica of the historical Elizabeth, but she conjures a startlingly lucid interpretation of that life.

Equally important are the supporting performances by a decidedly shifty cast of characters. My personal picks are Geoffrey Rush as Elizabeth’s master of spies, Sir Francis Walsingham, and Fanny Ardant as the maddening Mary of Guise. (Joseph Fiennes is good as Lord Robert Dudley, the lover whom Elizabeth leaves behind on her way to becoming Queen, but he’s shown off to better advantage in the comic Shakespeare In Love — which has him playing against an older Elizabeth, portrayed by Judi Dench!)

Kapur cross-cuts happily across the miles to introduce new characters, chronicle the aftermath of an ill-advised military strike, or update us on the fate of one of the many who would like to see Elizabeth taken down. If anything, his instincts veer toward melodrama, with one gothic pall too many making it hard to believe in the historicity of this landscape. At the same time, it’s Kapur’s flourishes, the deviations from ordinariness, that keep Elizabeth from foundering in its period trappings. The story flags when it falls back on the incidental cliches of the costume drama, or when it unwisely taps the Duc D’Anjou for allegedly frisky comic relief. (And what of that very ordinary score that kept welling up, on cue, whenever Blanchett really grabbed hold of a monologue?)

As a character piece, Elizabeth jettisons detailed explanations of historical events in favor of shorthand. I wasn’t clear, for instance, on exactly how Elizabeth managed to swing the establishment of the Church of England, even by the tiniest margin, given that she at first seemed to be playing to a decidedly hostile audience of bishops. And many of the story elements feel forced, or perfunctory — the doomed romance between Elizabeth and Lord Robert, in particular, has a daytime TV flavor. The resulting film can be irritatingly superficial, but engrossing, with a superior performance at its heart.

Directed by Shekhar Kapur
Written by Michael Hirst
Cinematography by Remi Adefarasin
Production Design by John Myhre
Edited by Jill Bilcock
Starring Cate Blanchett, Joseph Fiennes, and Geoffrey Rush
Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1
U.K., 1998

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