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Elizabethan England Swings

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 1998

  Movie Critic

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 burning, bludgeoning, beheading, throat-slashing, torture, corpses, sex and a naughty Elizabethan idiom for private parts
Plush as velvet and hot as blood, "Elizabeth" is a four-centuries-old thriller whose heartbeat is as quick as contemporary headlines.

Sectarian violence, sexism in the workplace, futile wars abroad, internecine political struggle at home and assassination attempts on the head of state – this is the stuff of ancient drama, and modern life, whether the year be 1558 or 1998.

Indian director Shekhar Kapur's fresh but still respectful take on the woman known as the Virgin Queen primarily concerns itself not with her 45-year reign (1558-1603), but with her rise to power and the transformation of an innocent girl into an icon. The convoluted story by screenwriter Michael Hirst, with its swarming cast of period-costumed characters and daunting historical setting, may at first confound those in the audience who don't carry a pocket organizational chart of the Tudor family dynasty. After a while of trying to sort out the Duke of Norfolk from the Earl of Leicester, however, it becomes clear that in "Elizabeth," it matters less who's who than what each personage stands for, and like any well-made suspense story the heroes and villains rapidly come into focus.

In 1554, when "Elizabeth" opens, Mary I (Kathy Burke) is queen. A staunch Catholic, the ruler nicknamed "Bloody Mary" is in the middle of her campaign of religious persecution against Protestants, many of whom she already has burned at the stake for heresy or treason. This religious paranoia extends even to her younger half-sister Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett), a Protestant born to Mary's father, Henry VIII, and Wife No. 2, Anne Boleyn, reviled by Mary as "that whore."

At the urging of her adviser the Duke of Norfolk (a snakelike Christopher Eccleston), a dying Mary carts Elizabeth off to the Tower of London for treason, only to convert the execution to house arrest after an eleventh-hour twinge of familial remorse. Soon Mary is dead, though, and Elizabeth is installed as queen – not only of a divided country, but of a court awash with treacherous vipers who resent their new monarch.

Bombarded by advice about wars and marriage and heirs and alliances from all sides of her male cabinet – not just the Machiavellian Norfolk but the doddering Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough), Elizabeth at first flounders, looking at times as if she wants to run screaming from the palace back to her country home in Hartfordshire and the arms of lover Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes). A queen can't do that, however, because she is something more than a woman and made of different stuff than flesh, and Elizabeth comes to realize this only with the prodding assistance of Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), a loyal Protestant lord recently returned from exile to serve his sovereign.

In the title role of an individual who makes these personal sacrifices for a nation's gain, Cate Blanchett is perfectly cast. Hardly a flibbertigibbet, the pale and thin Blanchett nevertheless possesses a beautiful fragility you can see in her translucent skin and dewy eyes, which seem to harden and become more opaque as the crown approaches her head.

And Kapur's dynamic and emotive camera, which starts out lurking behind masonry columns and peeking through cracks, only to become more stately and static as Elizabeth becomes more regal, keeps the film's momentum ever building to its dramatic climax.

Where "Elizabeth" really triumphs over its dusty source material is in transforming all this boring history – who succeeded, married, murdered whom – into a real, rip-roaring adventure tale. Certainly for modern audiences it helps that the movie has lots of sex and violence, in addition to its royal intrigue. The body and booty count may be high in "Elizabeth," but it's not gratuitous. Rather, it reminds that little has changed in 400 years.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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