If you're looking for a video to watch this Spring, "Elizabeth" (nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture) might work as light entertainment. But keep in mind, this visually interesting, yet shadowy, portrait of the creation of Elizabeth I as The Virgin Queen is more fiction than history.
The movie begins in 1554, during the reign of Mary Tudor, Elizabeth's half sister. It supposedly retells the story of Queen Elizabeth's early reign. However, the events of this movie - Elizabeth getting shut up in the Tower, almost marrying into an alliance with France, Norfolk's rebellion, and Elizabeth's eventual creation of The Virgin Queen persona - all actually took place over a period of about 30 years.
The Elizabeth in this movie, played by Oscar-nominated Cate Blanchett, is unsure of herself in her new role as Queen, literally fidgeting in her seat. She is portrayed as politically naive and "filled with childish passion" for Lord Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes).
In fact, the woman who donned the English coronation robes in 1558 was a hardened and practiced politician who was not afraid of her power, and knew how to use it. She was raised in the reign of her father, Henry VIII, learning only too well how dangerous even a slight personal or political misstep could be. Elizabeth Tudor's strength of character came from surviving the maelstrom of being the only offspring of Anne Boleyn, "the Great Whore," bastardized, ostracized, and often threatened with physical harm, even death. Keenly intelligent, she was taught by the finest teachers, as befitted a true Renaissance Princess. By the time she came to the throne, in addition to her political astuteness, she spoke fluent Latin (the international political language of the time), as well as Greek, Italian and French.
One of her most trusted friends throughout her life was Robert Dudley. She clearly had deep feelings of affection for him, but never let "childish passion" distract her from her duty. Certainly, rumors spread like wildfire throughout Europe about the nature of her relationship with him. However, Elizabeth never had a sexual relationship with him or anyone else.
It seems difficult for people to believe that Elizabeth lived and died a virgin. Yet she did. How do we know that? As the movie shows, spies in any court in Europe were as common as fleas on a dog. It was their job to report to their masters, in writing, what they discovered. Much of that writing survives, and no one ever wrote about anything more than rumors. Also keep in mind that no one, not even the monarch, slept alone. There was always at least one servant sleeping in the royal bedchamber, no matter what was going on in the royal bed. Thus, not unlike our times, there were no personal secrets of any import a monarch could keep. And Elizabeth's virginity was of keen interest to every one of her suitors who together made up the Who's Who list of Europe in the 1500s.
Two such suitors were Dukes of France. This movie has the Duke D'Anjou come to England in the hopes of marrying Elizabeth. This was not so. He and Elizabeth never met. However, a few years later, his younger brother, the Duke D'Alencon was offered up, seriously considered and nearly succeeded in marrying her. By the time the Dukes came on the scene, Elizabeth was 46, not the 20-something portrayed by Blanchett.
This movie goes out of its way to shock the audience with outrageous behavior that never would have happened. In one scene the Duke D'Anjou, as a suitor for the hand of the Queen of England, speaks in an outrageously sexual way to her. No man would speak to the Queen that way. . .and no Queen would tolerate it. The shame is that sophisticated word play was something Elizabethans loved. Had the script used that tone, the dialogue would have been much more delightful.
The costumes took equal liberties with historical accuracy. It is relatively easy to accurately reproduce costumes of this period; there are scores of portraits to copy. Which makes it all the more amazing that Colleen Atwood's Oscar-nominated costumes, while lush, are unnecessarily inaccurate. One dress had a bodice, neckline and sleeves belonging more to the Edwardian era than Elizabethan. This is unfortunate. The dress of the time was elegant and intricate. Elizabeth's clothes in particular were designed to be visually opulent and literally stunning. Elizabeth was nothing if not a consummate self-promoter. As the daughter of Henry VIII, she fully understood the need to impress both her people and her enemies with her presence as God's anointed on Earth.
Given the portraits of the characters as drawn in this script (no matter how historically slipshod), the acting is the highlight of the movie. This story paints Elizabeth as uncertain, passionate, and naive, and Blanchett does a fine job presenting her as such. In a similar way, the other key actors deliver such powerful performances that the characters that were written for them continue to live in my imagination.
Shekar Kapur lovingly directs this film, deliberately leaving the viewer with the sense that this was a dark and sinister age. Unfortunately for me, because I know this era also shone with intellectual, musical, artistic and political brilliance, I fail to share Kapur's love of this film.
Bio: Kathryn Gillett has been a student of Tudor History for over 15 years. She is a freelance writer who has published numerous articles and essays. She lives and works in Seattle, Washington.