1998

Film #382: Elizabeth (1998)

Even in the early days of Oscar, the academy loved British films that focused on the Tudor Monarchy. In fact the first ever British film to be nominated for an Oscar was The Private Life of Henry VIII for which Charles Laughton won a Best Actor statuette. At the 1999 Oscar ceremony, Henry’s daughter Elizabeth featured in two films which focused on different stages of her reign. Although Elizabeth was played by different actors the pair of movies did share a pair of actors who featured prominently throughout.

The imaginatively named Elizabeth was the first of these two films and saw Cate Blanchett take on the role of the titular Queen. Shekhar Kapur’s film was based around Elizabeth’s ascent to the throne following her sister Mary’s death and her struggles to gain the respect she needed. It didn’t help matters that everybody around her was trying to marry her off every five minutes or get her to declare a war on some country or other. It really seemed to me as if Elizabeth would’ve been better off continuing to dance round that field with Joseph Fiennes’ Dudley rather than committing herself to running the country. Obviously things got a bit more complicated when it turned out when Dudley was married and plotting to have her removed from the throne. But the only other alternative was Vincent Cassel’s hilariously campy cross-dressing French King who was flanked by an intimidating Eric Cantona. On the performances front, Elizabeth really belonged to Cate Blanchett who became an overnight sensation after appearing in the film. Elizabeth’s transformation is the key aspect of Michael Hirst’s script and Blanchett deals with this perfectly. She is convincing as the naive exile in the aforementioned dancing scenes but is equally great commanding rooms full of sceptical men. I feel the turning point in the film is Elizabeth’s appearance in front of the bishops which Blanchett plays incredibly well, initially seeming nervous before becoming the strong-willed woman we know she will be. Geoffrey Rush puts in a supporting turn as Elizabeth’s devious supporter Walsingham who ends up being her biggest ally. Rush is brilliant as he utilises a number of inquisitive facial expressions and tries to get the audience to second guess his actions. Christopher Eccleston’s Norfolk is an incredibly brooding villain as he uses his cunning rather than any sort of brutality to get what he wants. The film is give an air of legitimacy via the inclusion of veteran performers such as Richard Attenborough and John Gielgud whilst at the same time introducing some new faces like Daniel Craig and Emily Mortimer.

It’s this use of new faces and exciting visuals that sets Elizabeth out from the standard costume drama. I was personally won over straight away when the incredibly modern title card sequence flashed across the screen. The intrusive camera work in some scenes helped make the audience part of the action and livened up an occasionally dull story. I was surprised that, among the seven Oscar nominations the film received, the innovative editing wasn’t even recognised. I felt that several of the film’s key sequences relied on some great editing to make them feel important and give Elizabeth the modern twist it deserved. Additionally, the film was unflinching in its depiction of violence, which I feel was another positive attribute to Elizabeth’s overall success. From the burning of the protestants at the beginning of the film right up to Norfolk’s beheading, Elizabeth set out to show us that life in the Tudor court wasn’t all bonnets and balls. Up to this point I feel most of the period dramas have kept the violence and bloodshed behind closed doors but Elizabeth swung those doors wide open. The narrative of the film was well-paced and the two hour runtime perfectly suited the story of a Queen struggling to rule her nation. My main disappointment was that the film didn’t pick up as many Oscars as it should have done; only winning the award for Best Make-up. Whilst I felt that the Tudor faces were well realised, Elizabeth was much more than just your standard costume drama. But the reason for its failure at the awards can be attributed to the next film on my list.

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