Brimming with royal intrigue, court conspiracies, sex, violence, treachery, bloodshed and even a touch of cross-dressing, “Elizabeth” is superior historical soap opera that shrewdly sidesteps all the cliches of British costume drama with its bold, often modern approach. Propelled by Shekhar Kapur’s muscular direction , by Michael Hirst’s witty script and, perhaps most significant, by Cate Blanchett’s remarkable performance as the Virgin Queen who ruled England for more than 40 years, this richly entertaining saga is accessible enough to go beyond upscale crowds and possibly find wider appeal.
One of the principal role models here — which “Elizabeth” considerably betters — appears to be Patrice Chereau’s “La Reine Margot,” with a dash of “The Godfather” thrown in. Kinship with the former is especially apparent in the opening’s frenetic scene-setting, during which religious tensions in the country are illustrated and heretics are burned at the stake.
Story kicks off in 1554, with England financially troubled, under threat from abroad and fiercely divided along religious lines. The ailing Queen Mary (Kathy Burke) maneuvers to restore Catholicism as the country’s single faith after the break from Rome by her father, Henry VIII. Having no heir to the throne, she underhandedly attempts to prevent her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth (Blanchett), from succeeding her. But the ploy fails, and when Mary dies, Elizabeth is crowned, provoking the ire of Mary-loyalist the Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston).
Elizabeth’s chief adviser, Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough), urges her to marry and produce an heir, suggesting strategic candidates in the King of Spain or France’s Duc d’Anjou (Vincent Cassel). But the feisty young queen makes enemies by rejecting them both — the latter in an amusing scene when he is discovered frolicking in drag with a bunch of palace boy toys — and creates scandal by openly entertaining her childhood sweetheart, Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes). When the armies of French warrior queen Mary of Guise (Fanny Ardant) march on Scotland, Elizabeth unwisely accepts counsel to send her depleted troops to a crushing defeat, which further undermines her rule.
Elizabeth turns increasingly for guidance to Master of Spies Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush). As conspiracies within her council threaten to end her reign and the arrival of an unscrupulous Vatican emissary brings the risk of assassination even closer, Elizabeth strikes first.
In his first English-language feature, Indian filmmaker Kapur (“Bandit Queen”) rarely puts a foot wrong. While the opening sequences are perhaps over-directed — full of whirling cameras and lofty overhead shots — the film settles in to establish a painterly but unmannered visual style full of bold strokes. The requisite scenes of court ceremony and spectacle throw off conventional stuffiness and have an anarchy and spirit about them that seem entirely fresh. Even a slightly incongruous device like Elizabeth’s almost direct-to-camera rehearsal of a crucial speech punctuated by jump cuts here becomes part of what feels like a concrete artistic vision.
Kapur’s direction of the actors also is impeccable. Alternately gaunt and angular and ethereally beautiful, Blanchett conveys with grace, poise and intelligence that Elizabeth was a wily, decisive, advanced thinker, far too aware of her own exceptional nature to bow to any man. The Australian actress builds the juicy character almost imperceptibly from a smart but wary young woman who may be in over her head into a powerful creature of her own invention, appropriating the iconography of the Virgin Mary while carving out a persona for herself as a holy deity to be adored by her people. Whether cutting a roomful of Parliament members down to size with her quicksilver wit or dancing a volta that’s sexier than most tangos, this very contemporary Elizabeth clearly rules.
In the extensive supporting cast, Rush is dark and intriguing, keeping the audience guessing about where his loyalties really lie; Eccleston provides a chilly, understated villain; Burke makes every one of her too few scenes count, subtly shaping her borderline grotesque Mary into a pathetic monster; Ardant visibly relishes the Joan Collins-style role of the battle-happy superbitch; Cassel is a riot; and James Frain cuts a dashing figure as the manipulative Spanish ambassador.
If the film has a major flaw, it is due at least partly to history. As both lover and later betrayer, Lord Dudley is weak-willed and insipid, his every action and declaration reinforcing how unworthy he is of such a formidable woman. And while Fiennes’ boyish handsomeness fits the part and plausibly sparks peals of schoolgirl giggling from the romance-struck women of Elizabeth’s court, the actor’s stiff presence further underlines the bridgeless gap between the couple, making the film’s romantic element less than satisfying. But given that Elizabeth renounces love and marriage for her kingdom, this weakness represents no damage to the story’s dramatic weight.
Visually, the pic is a superb achievement. Remi Adefarasin’s camera is in constant motion and creates an ominous depth, working in tandem with the somber colors and heavy stone interiors — slashed with lots of fiery oranges and reds — of production designer John Myhre’s sets to create a dark, Gothic look that befits the lush dramatics of the piece. Alexandra Byrne’s striking costumes become part of the texture without ostentation. The often thundering, fugue-like score by David Hirschfelder (“Shine”) is suitably portentous, and Jill Bilcock’s agile editing keeps the pace brisk, becoming increasingly Coppola-esque in the climactic scenes as Elizabeth’s enemies are dispatched one by one.