Friday, 29 July 2016

Elizabeth (1998)

This is the film that launched Cate Blanchett to international attention.  Her performance as the young Elizabeth I is certainly praiseworthy; she is convincing both as the uncertain, naive young queen in the film's first act and as the poised, confident monarch of the final minutes.  And she is ably assisted by the rest of the cast, including Geoffrey Rush as her spymaster, Francis Walsingham.  I do, however, have some misgivings about the film, and the journey it takes us on.

Let's start with historical accuracy.  I'm generally willing to allow latitude on this point, so I'm not going to quibble too much about how much any given event in the film varies from the likely truth.  I am however a bit disappointed by some of the ways in which it does.  The decision to mention Mary, Queen of Scots only once in the film, for instance - not to show her, you understand, but just to mention her - seems a baffling one.  If you're making a film which takes as a central theme the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, surely it would make sense to feature the woman who was the great hope of the Catholic cause?

Tying into the film's omissions and inventions compared to the history, we also have the question of agency.  The film puts a great deal of emphasis on Walsingham, to the point where he feels more important to the plot than she does.  It is Walsingham who prevents Elizabeth's enemies from attending a vital debate in the House of Lords; Walsingham who is intimated to have assassinated the regent of Scotland, and Walsingham who uncovers the plot to murder the English Queen and replace her with Mary.  We can infer he did these things on Elizabeth's orders, of course, but the film does not show this.  It's particularly galling given that in real life there's no evidence he had anything to do with the first two of those three events.

Now the decision to emphasise Walsingham is perhaps understandable, given that Rush was much better known than Blanchett at the time of the film's release.  And if they'd gone all-in on him and called the film Walsingham I'd probably have really liked it.  But they didn't, and so we get a film that seems half about him and half about the Queen and thus perhaps falls a little short of what it could have been.

It remains, however, a well-acted and sumptuous-looking production, and is probably worth seeing for the performances alone.

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