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Movie Review: Elizabeth

By Vladimir Zelevinsky
staff reporter

Directed by Shekhar Kapur.

Written by Michael Hirst.

With Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Joseph Fiennes, Richard Attenborough, Christopher Eccleston.

Not to knock Merchant and Ivory, but the best period dramas are the ones directed by those who can provide the artistic sensibilities complementary to the historical setting. The results were superlative when Martin Scorsese directed The Age of Innocence and Iain Softley did The Wings of the Dove. This fall saw the release of another movie which falls into this category: Elizabeth is directed by Shekhar Kapur, primarily known as the director of the Indian outlaw story Bandit Queen. And while I didn't see it when it was first released, I got a second chance after it received a Best Picture Oscar nomination. The attention this film is getting is very much deserved.

Kapur brings to Elizabeth visual inventiveness and a sense of historical immediacy, which helps keep this historical drama from feeling like a historical drama. Instead, Elizabeth feel more like The Godfather, since the similarities are remarkable. This is the story of innocent young princess Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett), who is suddenly thrust into the throne of England. She is surrounded by warring factions, both political and religious, and has to suffer treason and backstage machinations, all while trying to survive attacks from France, Spain, and the Vatican, not to mention domestic foes.

What Elizabeth goes through is similar to what Michael Corleone has to go through: Her transformation, from the trusting young girl who dances in the fields with her friends to the cold and calculating monarch, is the main storyline. And the climax - a series of cruel deeds cut with scenes of the mastermind praying in church - feels like a direct quotation. To be fair, I'm not accusing Elizabeth of creative pilfering, since the scene is still quite original.

Kapur's style of directing is fresh, and provides an eyeful even when the story hits a weaker spot. Elizabeth is concerned with epic events, grand on scale and importance. It would take a film twice as long and five times as expensive to put all of the historical happenings on screen with at least some degree of authenticity. Kapur does it the opposite way, by emphasizing telling details, most of them throwaway, all of them rewarding. A good deal of plot and character motivation rides on unspoken thoughts, communicated through brief glances. I especially liked when one of the characters, after a sudden wave of poisonings in court, courteously refuses a glass of water offered by a potential foe no words, one glance, speaking volumes.

This strategy withholding the epic scope and telling the story via minute details is paramount in the visual aspect as well. Kapur rarely gives master shots, instead keeping them tight and perfectly framed, once in a while even keeping the main action blurry in the background while focusing on an object to the fore. The cinematic techniques work quite well with the narrative flow, better than most recent movies.

And this camera work helps save the day when the narrative falters. Elizabeth is somewhat overwritten and overplotted, a rare problem in modern films, with the entire middle section devoted to many characters scheming against each other. It's always lucid and usually interesting; the problem is that it's never really profound. The characters don't seem to matter much, at least when compared with the events they participate in. This happens because the screenplay attempts to tell about actual events (or a reasonable facsimile of such) and creates the characters to fit the storyline. This is a rather complicated task, and doesn't quite feel natural.

The actors do much to hide this fact. Blanchett, on screen almost every minute of the film, gives a totally seamless performance; I believed she was the true ruler of England. Supporting cast fares almost as well, with the real standout being Geoffrey Rush, who creates a character so powerful that by the end of the film his mere presence in a scene speaks volumes. Another Shakespeare in Love thespian, Joseph Fiennes, is very good as well, but it took me a while to stop thinking about him as Will Shakespeare.

I was somewhat less than riveted by some scenes in the second half of the movie; since I knew how the Virgin Queen fared in real life, and the narrative became predictable, the only things that kept the movie going were acting and direction; at least, until the very finale.

The finale is stunning. When Elizabeth finally morphs into the historical person we know her to be one of England's two most important rulers, the woman who built the country into a dominant world power the ending achieves dazzling brilliance. It's perfectly clear that what we're witnessing is nothing else than the creation of future the rise of absolute monarchy from the ruins of religious and territorial squabblings. Both Blanchett and Kapur nail the scene, but the most important element in it is the ethereal music by Mozart. I can't think of a better musical choice than his Requiem to end this story. The music bridges from the sixteenth century to the eighteenth, and by extension, to the twentieth. This is really why I like good historical dramas: At their best, they are not about their time, but about ours.