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Bloody 'Elizabeth': Mad-Dog Englishmen

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 1998


Cate Blanchett in "Elizabeth": A musty old history lesson brought to vivid and sensual life. (Gramercy)

Shekhar Kapur
Cate Blanchett;
Geoffrey Rush;
Joseph Fiennes;
Christopher Eccleston;
Richard Attenborough;
Kathy Burke;
Fanny Ardant;
Vincent Cassel
Running Time:
1 hour, 44 minutes
For extreme violence, including death by fire, stabbing and torture, and for powerful sexual innuendo
The fabulous "Elizabeth" reinvents English Tudor history as gangster movie: It's about a gang that couldn't stab straight, and a gang that could. Guess who wins?

Set just before and during the first few years of Elizabeth's reign, it chronicles a process very similar to that movie set just before and during the first few years of Michael Corleone's reign – that is, "The Godfather."

Essentially, the materials are the same: In the middle of a brutal war of succession among contending noble houses, an unlikely candidate ascends to the leadership position. Everyone expects the youngster to end up as chopped liver or with a chopped neck. But with subtle strategic gifts, ruthlessness and a profoundly cynical mentor (in Michael's case, his father; in Elizabeth's, Sir Francis Walsing ham), Our Hero not only survives, but orchestrates a triumphal, bloody countercoup, leaving all her enemies dead and herself facing a long and prosperous life. Both movies are about becoming – a boy becomes a don, a girl becomes a queen.

The director, Shekhar Kapur, goes so far as to deliver this last bloody dance in almost the same film vernacular as Coppola's: a kind of melody of carnage and triumph, as the camera floats between the fate of papist plotters as hit men from Her Majesty arrive, their blades drawn, their faces taut; and of the queen in her chambers, assembling the look that will be her image in history. It's really the same alternation of death and birth that the Coppola version expressed so memorably.

Cate Blanchett, the young Australian actress who played Lucinda in "Oscar & Lucinda," is Our Liz, girl of flaxen red tresses and queen of iron red ringlets (hair is destiny, in this film). The movie discovers her on what appears to be the front of a Hallmark greeting card, in a sunny romantic glade, attended by girls in waiting, being romanced by the handsome Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (played by Ralph Fiennes's brother Joseph, who looks less like Ralph and more like Rob Lowe with a mustache).

But we know the sylvan beauty is an illusion, because the movie has opened with a terrifying sequence asserting the chaos that grips the country. Three heretics are scalped and then burned at the stake, certainly one of the most unsettling movie versions of an auto-da-fe on record, at the behest of half-mad Bloody Mary, that is, Mary Tudor (Kathy Burke), rightful heir to the throne and legitimate daughter of Henry VIII. And soon enough, the young Elizabeth, a Protestant, is hauled off to the tower by the queen, who may be her half-sister but is all Catholic. But when Mary dies, Elizabeth at 25 becomes queen, at least nominally.

Her claim is somewhat shaky. Her mother was Henry's mistress and only later his wife, and even then only a short while; she was divorced from him by a rather fearsome ax. (History remembers her as Anne Boleyn.) Worse, she's easily intimidated by both Norfolk's bombast and Sir William Cecil's homey condescension. All she really wants to do is dance.

The Duke of Norfolk, played with fiery intensity by Christopher Eccleston, is really the film's villain. Rich and power-mad and leaning toward Rome, he'll plot against Elizabeth with a variety of methodologies. But in his way, the old Cecil (Richard Attenborough) is far worse, because he's a conciliator, a temporizer, a kind of Neville Chamberlain who will give up anything for peace in his time.

Enter evil. But also: enter righteousness. This is the great Aussie actor Geoffrey Rush as Sir Francis Walsingham, sly, cunning, forceful and vicious. Walsingham is one of those necessary men, with a spy master's subtlety of mind when required, but an assassin's will if necessary. He will kill for his queen, but he's really running a deep game of counter-espionage, trying to outmaneuver his queen's enemies, even when she has yet to discover that she has any.

Historically, "Elizabeth" is provocative. It argues almost a public relations theory of her reign. That is, that to survive, the decidedly nonvirginal young queen adapted a stylization of the Virgin Mary as her image, slathering herself in chalky makeup and reducing her body movements to stiff ritualizations, she somehow became a professional Mary impersonator, a Mary in drag, in order to wean her people from the faith they felt toward Rome's most powerful icon. She's a queen out of an ad agency. I leave it for scholars to determine if this idea has merit or not; it's an intriguing hook on which to hang a movie.

Stylistically, the film is fascinating. It sits at a curious intersection between traditions of the movie past. On the one hand, it seems to willingly embrace the old-movie pageantry and the ceremonial grandeur of MGM's Tudor England. It loves castles and gowns and those frilly collars the men all wore. Everybody in it looks like a male model in a Ming the Merciless outfit. But at the same time, it's revisionist: It sentimentalizes nothing and is frequently gruesome; in the end it celebrates the Realpolitik of its times (and ours). It's Tudor history out of the Seymour Hersh school. It's the dark side of Elizabeth's Camelot.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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