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1 item from 1998

Film review: 'Elizabeth'

5 November 1998 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

Those who favor conspiracy theories will rejoice in Gramercy's "Elizabeth", a raucous and full-throated depiction of the byzantine dangers that faced England's queen who ascended the throne in 1558 after beating the executioner's blade.

Roiled with behind-the-scenes intrigue and featuring a well-chosen cast, "Elizabeth"'s sweep is extensive but its schematic girth hobbles its thematic, seams-showing undergarments -- the championing of a 1990-style, own-woman heroine. Capped with technical finery and Cate Blanchett's steely lead performance, "Elizabeth" will win some enthusiastic select-site admirers and mixed critical acclaim.

With its historic backdrop and speechifying, it's likely to win Golden Globe recognition from the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. as well, but its plodding bombastics will settle less well with other sophisticated viewers. Its boxoffice reign will be fraught with variation, owing to its narrative and thematic ambitions -- an uneven mix of grand-scale visuals and soliloquy-style exposition will surely benumb as many viewers as it bedazzles.

An often canny mix of pomp, plummery and philosophy (both political and personal), "Elizabeth" is, in its beginnings, smartly distilled to human dimensions -- a story of family intrigue (the family happens to be the royals) and geopolitical warring. Screenwriter Michael Hirst has sagely set the historical backdrop with the mid-1550s calamities in England under Queen Mary I's iron-fisted rule. As per tradition in those isles, it's the same old story, Catholic vs. Protestant, as Mary feverishly instigates her policy of repression against Protestants, especially half-sister Elizabeth who, she fears, will ascend the throne and cause England to forsake the papacy. Indeed, "Elizabeth" blazes with the respective turmoils of the day: England is bankrupt and without an army -- a perilous state given the threats from abroad. Spanish and French armies are poised to strike when Elizabeth ascends the throne.

Detailing the historical conflicts with brevity and general clarity, the film nevertheless suffers from the combination of its honed-down, personal narrative to emblematize the big picture, while director Shekhar Kapur's ("Bandits") cinematic pomposity, in terms of visual composition and the samesong rhythms of plot exposition. Throughout, expositional scenes are turgidly overdressed with pageantry -- boat trips, royal dinners and other over-stitched fineries that, although historically accurate, tend to reduce the story line to a paradelike display of flotillas and grandstanding.

Unlike the superbly restrained "A Man for All Seasons", "Elizabeth" is, by nature of its indelicate thematic trumpetings, much less powerful in theme and drama. Admittedly, the filmmakers' task is somewhat akin to writing a Cliff Notes distillation of one of history's most explosive times. Although its girth and shrill deportment would seem to preclude it from reaching wide mainstream dimension, "Elizabeth" does certainly given one an overall appreciation for the tumultuous battles and cross-alliances that jarred all of Europe during the 16th century and how these internecine warrings have fashioned in many ways today's society and governments.

The crown point of "Elizabeth" is Blanchett's vigorously shaped performance as a woman who, under the most strenuous duress, is able to focus her will and energies from powers within. Blanchett embodies the kind of survivalist power that Queen Elizabeth possessed: the sagacity to recognize what advice to take and what to disregard and the savagery to protect and extend her own flanks.

Geoffrey Rush also deserves a knighthood for his sinister-stirred performance as a dark force about court, while Richard Attenborough's cherubic countenance, glazed with a ferocious resolve, is perfect in his role as Elizabeth's cunning chief adviser. Similarly, John Gielgud does a short but stunning turn as the addled and elderly Pope. Not surprisingly, in a dramatic sweep as far-stepping as "Elizabeth", some characters suffer from stereotypical condensation, most aggrievedly the Duc d'Anjou (Vincent Cassel), an epicene fop who is used as a romantic inducement to bring Elizabeth into the French fold.

Throughout, Shekhar Kapur's direction is overwrought, from high-angled visuals to showy compositions. It tends to dull the edge of the narrative's many provocative excellencies. Indeed, Kapur has rounded everything off to showiest dimension and, in the process, has diluted the richness of the storyline. Still, there is much to praise, including costume designer Alexandra Byrne's historical fittings and production designer John Myhre's packed-with-danger trimmings.


Gramercy Pictures

PolyGram Filmed Entertainment presents

In association with Channel Four Films

A Working Title production

A film by Shekhar Kapur

Producers: Alison Owen, Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan

Director: Shekhar Kapur

Screenwriter: Michael Hirst

Director of photography: Remi Adefarasin

Production designer: John Myhre

Editor: Jill Bilcock

Costume designer: Alexandra Byrne

Music: David Hirschfelder

Casting: Vanessa Pereira, Simone Ireland

Line producer: Mary Richards

Co-producers: Debra Hayward, Liza Chasin



Elizabeth I: Cate Blanchett

Sir Francis Walsingham: Geoffrey Rush

Duke of Norfolk: Christopher Eccleston

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester: Joseph Fiennes

Sir William Cecil: Richard Attenborough

Earl of Sussex: Jamie Foreman

Alvaro de la Quadra: James Frain

Kat Ashley: Emily Mortimer

Isabel Knollys: Kelly MacDonald

Earl of Arundel: Edward Hardwicke

Mary of Guise: Fanny Ardant

Queen Mary Tudor: Kathy Burke

Duc d'Anjou: Vincent Cassel

Pope: John Gielgud

Running time -- 124 minutes

MPAA rating: R


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