Your people would like to brand you a heretic and burn you at the stake while their children look on for entertainment. Your enemies make presents of poison-laced gowns that will burn your skin off slowly and painfully. Your lover betrays you to your worst enemy and potential usurper of your throne because he thinks he’s doing what’s best for both of you.
In sixteenth century England, it’s not always good to be the queen.
“Elizabeth” is the stunning stateside debut of Indian director Shekhar Kapur. Chronicling the controversial ascent of Elizabeth to the top of the English monarchy and her arduous effort to remain there, the biopic is a murky valentine to costume drama lovers. Thanks to elements of desperate romance and political ill will, and a mesmerizing performance by Cate Blanchett, this self-billed “historical thriller” (would I were the marketing whiz who thought up that genre classification) emerges as a pleasant surprise in the expanding Oscar race and manages to remain engrossing despite a confusing plot of insurrection and intrigue.
We first meet Elizabeth as a footloose and fancy-free princess cavorting about in the green hills of England with her ladies-in-waiting and her boy toy, Lord Robert (Joseph Fiennes, teddy-bear cute brother to the inimitable Ralph). The bishops and advisers to Queen “Bloody” Mary (Kathy Burke, who plays Mary like a raving madwoman) label Elizabeth as a Protestant and therefore a threat to the Catholic homogeny of the kingdom wrought by Mary’s reign; they urge Mary to quash the “heretic girl” before she can even dream of becoming queen in Mary’s heirless wake.
Soon enough, Elizabeth is imprisoned in the Tower of London, a scene that looks like something out of Dante’s “Inferno” as she is taken her cell through the dark bowels of the tower, the heads of decapitated heretics and criminals staring vacantly at her from poles set in the Styx-like river. At the same time, cancer-ridden Mary writhes on her bed and shocks Norfolk (a chilling Christopher Eccleston), the military mastermind who will stop at nothing to keep Elizabeth from the throne, and the rest of the court by refusing to sign over her kingdom and her half-sister’s birthright. Before the second reel is through, Elizabeth is crowned queen and thrust into a whole new world of pain and suffering at the hands of regal decorum and those who would rather see her Protestant soul dead than let her rule another day.
The remainder of the film devotes itself to the ins and outs of royal conspiracy, making clear that being a monarch is anything but roses. Elizabeth must contend with traitorous advisors and endless parade of courtiers who would love to see her take a long walk off a short pier. Luckily, she finds in Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) an ally who is her saving grace more than once during her reign. Walsingham’s motives are hard to read, sometimes damn near inscrutable, and it is even harder to tell whose side he is on until the very end. The crosses and double-crosses the script presents prime the viewer to expect nothing to be what it seems and so the alliance between Elizabeth and Walsingham often seems tenuous and untrustworthy.
At times, though, the confusion just doesn’t matter in the face of Blanchett’s performance as Elizabeth. Seen previously opposite the elder Fiennes in “Oscar and Lucinda,” she is clear-eyed and flame-haired, capable of unbridled passion and disregard for the mores and conventions of the court as she brings Lord Robert to her bed and makes restrained court dances appear as sexy as the lambada. As her trusted circle shrinks and the political and romantic casualties mount, her Elizabeth grows icy and distant, learning to rely only on herself in matters of the mind and heart. When she finally reemerges as the “virgin queen,” married to all England instead of any one man, her unquestionable authority is a far cry from the innocent schoolgirl we see at the beginning of the film. Experience has made Elizabeth nothing if not wise, and Blanchett’s self- possession enables her to go the distance.
If not for Blanchett’s strong showing and top-drawer support from the remaining cast, the thematic issues presented by “Elizabeth” would be more troublesome. As it is, they are tricky; the film has difficulty deciding whether it wants to be about the religious division between Protestants and Catholics or the subversive feminism that Elizabeth brings with her to the palace, periodically providing clues that it really wants to be about both. Its scope is far too large for the amount of time allotted to each of these directions. “Elizabeth” succeeds far more as a tale of feminist revisionist history than one of religious conflict, most certainly because of Blanchett’s powerful showing.
Despite these problems, “Elizabeth” is absorbing and does live up to bill of thrills. Kapur’s direction is lavish and at times inspired; he shoots the opening scene of heretics burning at the stake entirely in overhead shots, implying that a disapproving God is watching the madness down below but powerless to stop it or pass judgment – or perhaps that he is cheering them on. Later, he enacts an Elizabethan-style rendition of the famous parallel action execution-during-baptism scene from “The Godfather” that actually works. Because of the alternating sweeping austerity and luxurious images, Kapur succeeds in surpassing the perplexing aspects of the plot, and together with Blanchett elevates “Elizabeth” to a position worthy of this new “historical thriller” genre.