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Movies

Elizabeth

Review: Blanchett a queenly knockout as 'Elizabeth'

Web posted on:
Thursday, November 05, 1998 10:24:14 AM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- It's no secret that I don't particularly care for historical costume dramas. Merchant-Ivory films are always a bit of a chore for me (even when I'm mostly enjoying them) and I've never seen "A Man for All Seasons," mainly because I don't want to.

I prefer movies where desperate people hold up liquor stores or shmucks comically argue about their girlfriends in greasy diners. Subterfuge behind the castle walls always looks the same to me, no matter who's doing the subterfuging or where the walls are located.

My mom and sister are the Tataras most likely to carry on about the detailed costumes and the brilliantly dyed fabrics. I, on the other hand (the one who writes the movie reviews), will head to The Gap if I want to look at some clothes.

Consider that a disclaimer, because I'm about to complain a little bit about a film that may very well knock your socks into the stratosphere if you have a soft spot for silk pillows, gilded chalices, lutes, and back-stabbin' among the princes and m'Ladies. It's a gorgeously mounted production called "Elizabeth" that stars Cate Blanchett (who is just as memorably charismatic as she was in last year's "Oscar and Lucinda") as Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, one of the least amicably-split couples of the 1500s.

Subterfuge and lies

Like every other movie made about a new leader climbing onto England's (very fancy) throne, this one deals with the deceit of the underlings and the personality flip-flops that can occur when a relatively nice person suddenly realizes that they have an infinite number of sycophants who are just itching to do their bidding for them.

The local Catholics don't want Elizabeth to take charge because she's a Protestant, and (as you see in the movie's truly horrifying opening sequence, brilliantly shot by director Shekhar Kapur) they like to burn Protestants at the stake if they step a little bit out of line. Elizabeth's half-sister, Mary, wears the crown as the film opens, but she's got cancer and is not long for this world.

It's easy to see that we're supposed to favor Liz over Mary because Mary sits in the dark all the time and has rotten teeth that make her look like Joe Strummer did in The Clash's early publicity photos. Elizabeth, on the other hand, dances in green fields dappled with golden sunlight and has a peachy complexion that would not look out of place in a Noxzema ad.

A lot of guys with neatly trimmed beards and suspiciously arched eyebrows try to force the wheezing Mary to sign an anti-Elizabeth document before she dies, but she won't do it. So she bites it, and now the Protestant rules.

No ball running country

If you're imagining that Elizabeth is about to have a ball running the country, though, you don't know how country-running works. The French "warrior queen," Mary of Guise (Fanny Ardant, wild-haired and lecherous), has gathered up troops at the Scottish border ... and they're not preparing an elaborate "Welcome to Europe" fruit basket for Elizabeth. The new queen grudgingly decides to fight the French, but, unfortunately, her team gets stomped.

Lack of previous game films may have been the culprit, but it makes no difference -- England's finest are strewn all over a battle field, now looking like impeccably dressed raw steaks. Elizabeth's Master of Spies, Sir Francis Walsingham (a menacing Geoffrey Rush) was one of the few court advisers who protested the decision to fight, and now she realizes that she's going to have to be more careful about who she listens to if she's to survive as Queen.

I know what you're thinking: Where's the boyfriend? Well, he's there, in the person of Lord Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), a cutie who's in love with Elizabeth. It turns out he's not such a cuddly Dudley when she gets to know him better, but nobody thinks he'd make much of a King anyway.

It's decided for Elizabeth that she should marry the arrogant -- and, as it turns out, possibly crazy -- French Duc d'Anjou (Vincent Cassel). The Court desperately wants her to sire an heir to the throne, a little trick that's considered one of her top queenly duties, and she needs to get crackin'.

No affairs too personal

Everybody intends to have a say in this most personal of personal matters, especially Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough, far more welcome in front of the camera than he is behind it), one of Elizabeth's chief advisors. He's constantly on her trail, even insisting at one point that the ladies-in-waiting bring him the queen's sheets to see if she's menstruating.

As Sir William says of Elizabeth, "Her Majesty's body and functions are no longer her own property. They belong to the state." Who does this guy think he is, Kenneth Starr?!

In the early going, I was quite taken with Kapur's fluid camera work. He likes his images to feel like they're floating in front of you (sort of the way they do in "Apocalypse Now"), but he also seems to dig peeking at things from high up above. Sometimes the camera swings around a bit while you're up there, like you've just been hung and are staring down at the culprits. I was disappointed that he kept at it so vigorously for so long, though.

After a while you've had enough of elegant swirling around characters when all they're doing is standing there talking. If you're capable of simply marveling at fancy cinematography and sumptuous costumes when you get tired of the establishing dialogue (the movie has gobs of it), this one is in a league with the recent "Artemisia."

It's almost guaranteed to get a couple of Oscar nominations in the technical categories, and I think Blanchett deserves one, too. I hope you enjoy it a whole lot if it's your cup of English Breakfast, and I also hope that I'll never have to sit through it again.


"Elizabeth" can be pretty rough in places. The opening Protestant bonfire is gruesome, as are some of the battle field wounds. There's lots of violence, nudity, and hot sex shot through silky curtains. There's also a death by poisoned dress. (Honest.) I saw Gretchen Mol in the theater before the movie started, looking cute as a button. I only tell you this because it's an easy way to show off. Rated R. 124 minutes.

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