Conspiracies. Intrigues. Plans within plans. The ascension of one of the greatest monarchs the world has ever known. It’s a story woven from the very fabric of history and each strand is perfectly intertwined. The result is a movie so engaging, so commanding, that it sets the highest standard for the historical epic film. As if that weren’t enough, it introduced the world to an actress who would come set a few standards of her own.
The year is 1558 and England is in turmoil. The Catholic and Protestant faiths are at each others throats for control of the throne. Queen Mary Tudor, a devout Catholic, has died, leaving her half-sister Elizabeth, a Protestant, to take her place. At the age of 25 Elizabeth inherited a kingdom in shambles and a court full of men desperately plotting her murder. Of course, we all know she overcomes and goes on to become one of England’s most famous rulers, but the story of how she started out, of what the iconic queen was like before she became the icon, makes for some compelling cinema.
Among the many challenges that the new queen faces, Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) quickly discovers the sacrifices required of her. A love affair with Lord Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) is complicated when her chief advisor, the compassionate but demanding Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough), presses her to make a profitable alliance by marriage as quickly as possible. To make matters worse, the Pope (John Gielgud), angered that a Protestant rules England, is plotting with English Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston) and Mary of Guise (Fanny Ardent) to kill her and restore Catholicism to power. Elizabeth’s only true ally is the faithful but deadly Lord Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), a man who would do anything to see her succeed as queen.
I’ll admit that I wrote the above paragraph mainly to show off the names of the cast. Blanchett. Gielgud. Attenborough. Fiennes. Rush. Eccelston. At the time the movie was first released some of those names were already legendary, others were only starting down the path to becoming. Blanchett, of course, gets most of the attention for her incredible interpretation of the Virgin Queen (and deservedly so), but pulled together the cast makes for one of the most amazing ensembles ever to cross the screen. There are no weak links here. Every performance down to the last extra is marvelous.
The script may not always have the facts correct. There are plenty of places where it veers from well known history. Though it doesn’t follow the letter of the details, it definitely follows the spirit. There’s a dark edginess and a powerful energy that keeps the movie primed full of the essence of the early years of Elizabeth’s reign and the personal and political challenges she faced. Director Shekhar Kapur guides his cast masterfully through every single scene, painting an eerily believable picture of people who are both immortal historic icons, but also mortal human beings.
Add in a painstakingly detailed production design and David Hirschfelder’s haunting score, and you have a flawless film worthy of the many awards it received. Even if history epics aren’t your thing, give Elizabeth a chance.
Elizabeth first arrived in theaters in 1998 with the first copy showing up on DVD in 2001. Since then there have been a few versions of the disc released, though most of them are fairly similar. The most recent edition brought the film into HD DVD format and I wouldn’t be surprised if a solid anniversary edition shows up sometime next year.
Most of the DVD versions have the standard extras: teaser and full trailer, production photos, cast and crew info, etc. On top of that are a simplistic but interesting making-of featurette and a second slightly less simplistic, more interesting featurette about the film in general.
The making-of featurette is mainly a series of scenes from the movie interspersed by talking heads of the cast, producers, writer Michael Hisrt and director Shekhar Kapur. There are some revealing tidbits and insights from the actors, but otherwise it’s a sleepy watch. The second featurette is more exciting, but also more melodramatic. Half-way between a trailer and a featurette, it feels like something used as filler inbetween movies on HBO. Both features are short so you won’t lose much if you give them a try.
Kapur is knowledgable and eloquent, and starts his commentary at the beginning, talking about how someone from an Indian background came to direct a movie about an English monarch. From there he explores everything from the script to the acting, cinematography and philosophy of film making, falling silent when the movie reaches a place that he apparently feels is poignant. Watching the film with his commentary running is a great way to experience the film and I highly recommend it, especially if you loved the movie as much as I did.
With the recent theatre release of the disappointing sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age, a paired package of the two movies can’t be far in the distance. I would hope to see more background material on Elizabeth appear with that release. In particular, there’s more to be explored about the film’s incredible sets and costumes and its score and cinematography as well. Some historical exploration of England and Elizabeth wouldn’t be out of place either.