There are certain stories and subjects that have been filmed so often that any new telling has to account for the audience’s familiarity. The life and reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England is one such subject. Short of using a revisionist approach to history that turns one of Britain’s greatest monarchs into a failed fool, there isn’t much new to be gained by recounting yet another straightforward history. Put crassly, to hook the viewer, you need a new angle.
Something like that awareness seems to inform Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth, which dramatizes the monarch’s (Cate Blanchett) early years. Instead of demonstrating the Queen’s political acumen, the film focuses on her fears, insecurities and uncertainties, presumably to show she had to grow into greatness. And while following the broad outlines of history, Elizabeth is as distorted and questionable in its way as romantic Elizabethan epics like Fire Over England or The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex in theirs. But where those earlier efforts create rousingly positive views of the period, Elizabeth provides a relentlessly brooding picture of early modern England.
The screenplay by Michael Hirst grovels in court intrigues, religious fanaticism, sadistic violence and brutal sexuality, while failing to compensate with the epigrammatic dialog expected of this kind of material. In fact, the dialog, particularly Francis Walsingham’s (Geoffrey Rush) advice to the Queen, is sententious and monotonous. To the sunnier visions of the Queen’s reign, Elizabeth offers a reverse sentimentality that mistakes an emphasis on seamy details for fearless truth-telling.
Kapur seems to feel that if the material has to be grimly tendentious, at least the surfaces can offer some appeal, however perverse. Exploiting the horror film atmosphere, the director makes Elizabeth one of the literally darkest epics in film history. (The scene above is a refreshing exception.) Nearly every interior looks as if it has been lit by a single candle. Often objects obtrude the camera’s view, making it even more difficult to see what is going on. Kapur also has an annoying habit of focusing on a plane of action other than the putative subject, while cutting repeatedly just for the sake of it. With so much heavy-breathing embellishment, it feels almost as if the director is working against the material.
The results are admittedly striking, original and memorable and Kapur’s flashy approach provides some interesting tricks for other directors to imitate, but that surely can’t be the purpose of the film. Elizabeth’s focus on the horrific side of the period may give us a slightly more balanced vision than the usual sparkling spectacle, but it is not deeper, just nastier than the most myopic of traditional epics. The film seems to exist to engage younger viewers by depicting the Queen as an inexperienced kid who has to learn to overcome adversity, sort of a Monarch Without a Cause. Such a banal purpose, when clothed in the film’s violent excesses, borders on the insulting.