Elizabeth (1998)

*. Again with the Tudors of myth. Henry VIII was a lousy king, and Elizabeth not much of a queen, but they were larger-than-life figures and there was the Reformation and defeating the Spanish Armada so they keep getting trotted out as heroes of a kind of English golden age. For director Shakhar Kapur Elizabeth gets credit for everything from Shakespeare to Virginia (from his DVD commentary: “she discovered Virginia . . . she colonized it”). Good Queen Bess is Astraea and Gloriana and everything else her courtiers, in the great age of such obsequious propaganda, flattered her as being.
*. But as I said in my notes on The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, movies have always preferred the Tudor myth to reality. So it’s only a little surprising that in 1998 that’s still the route being taken here in a movie that might just have easily been called The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Dudley. With “private” in both cases being a euphemism for “made up.”
*. I don’t think anyone expects these costume epics to pass historical muster, but even so there are some wild liberties taken here that don’t pass the test of probability. Most notable is the fact that Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) never conspired against Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) and that his marriage was obviously known to her. Did Kapur think he was making Shakespeare In Love with its revelation that Will Shakespeare was married being the plot twist that alienated Lady Viola in that film?
*. A lot of historical dramas have academic consultants or advisers on the payroll. Did they here? What did they think of all this? Listening to the commentary it isn’t clear if Kapur felt that Elizabeth really didn’t know that Dudley wasn’t married. I think he was just content that his Elizabeth had been kept in the dark (as it that were possible!). On the matter of Dudley’s conspiracy Kapur sounds completely confused, saying that Dudley had been in contact with the Spanish ambassador but that he (Kapur) had left that part out because he thought nobody would believe it. So he made up an even more far-fetched and entirely fictional conspiracy?
*. The commentary left me baffled as to where Kapur really stood on such matters. I don’t think anyone believes that Walsingham killed Mary of Guise but Kapur tells us that “It was always said that Walsingham killed her,” and that he is only asking questions. Questions “that don’t need answering, they just have to be raised.” This sounds suspiciously like a former president of the United States, and just as greasy.
*. I did like Kapur’s commentary for the light it shed on some of his creative decisions. Throughout the movie he favours two particular kinds of shots: from directly overhead and shooting through a veil or screen or some other obstruction. I’m not a fan of either, but he does give his reasons.
*. For the first: “I often get asked why I use all these overheard shots. There were two reasons. I think that I’ve always believed that man and woman, everybody ultimately, no matter how powerful or weak you are, are products of your own destiny, and I consistently use these overhead shots to make people look smaller than God, [or] not God so much as destiny. Even the Pope is smaller than destiny. Even Elizabeth is smaller than her destiny.” And a second reason he gives is to “break the grammar” of how some scenes, like the burnings at the stake in the prologue, are usually presented. Overhead shots make these events seem “stranger” because we’re not used to them.
*. Then there are the obstructions. This is paired with his moving camera to add to a sense of sinister voyeurism. “This constant roving camera: I decided at one point the camera must become the greatest conspirator of all, the greatest threat to Elizabeth is me, me the director and the camera. We’ve got to emotionally be like a snake, going around her, going around her, threatening her, ready to strike at any time, from every nook and corner.” Looking at Elizabeth through veils or screens is part of the same thing, giving the sense that people are spying on Elizabeth all the time.
*. Well, you may not care for those justifications, or think they work, but at least he had his reasons and I’m glad he shared them with us. It’s a good commentary, in part for giving us a lot to engage, and disagree, with.

*. As with any bit of Tudormania the settings and costumes are, if not the thing, an absolutely essential part of the whole. The cast seem relaxed in their roles. Fiennes is dewy and a bit of a wimp. Geoffrey Rush as Walsingham (also coming over from Shakespeare in Love), Richard Attenborough as Cecil, pre-Bond Daniel Craig as an albino monk from Opus Dei sent to kill Robert Langdon, Kelly Macdonald as a lady-in-waiting for Gosford Park, Vincent Cassel stealing the show as a cross-dressing Duke of Anjou. Cate Blanchett is great and carries things as an Elizabeth who is, once again, a defender of freedom of conscience and proto-feminist icon, ready to deliver lines like “I am not your Elizabeth. I am no man’s Elizabeth. And if you think to rule, you are mistaken. I will have one mistress here . . . and no master!” You go, girl!
*. Adventures in translation. When the decadent Duke of Anjou first meets Elizabeth he sweet talks her about what he’s going to do to her “chat.” Which is French for cat, so the English translation is obvious. In the English subtitles, however, it is given as “quinny.” Is “quinny” Renaissance slang? I’ve heard of “quim,” but it’s rarely used nowadays. I don’t think I’ve ever heard “quinny” before, or seen it in writing.
*. Seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (it would lose out to Shakespeare in Love). Unfortunately, such encouragement only led Kapur to double down on all of the problems here when he came to make Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007). In that later film the romance would be even more Harlequin and more ahistorical while the anti-Catholic bias would be pushed even deeper into caricature. And by going further The Golden Age does achieve a kind of badness that is actually a bit of fun. This movie, on the other hand, is entirely forgettable.

18 thoughts on “Elizabeth (1998)

  1. fragglerocking

    I saw this ine and it’s follow up, quite enjoyed them in spite of the liberties taken with history. Quinny is a company that makes baby carriages/buggies, or a nickname for people with the surname Quinn, a character in the 2010 movie Monogamy, and the name of my son-in-law’s Mothers dog. 🙂

      1. Alex Good Post author

        Might have been given how he was stumbling around knocking bins over. But he didn’t have a hat or a trenchcoat. Just a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers.

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