Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Movie Review: "Elizabeth" by David Pretty

All Hail, Your Graces!

Feeling as if I was hanging on the edge of "evolution" after watching the last season of The Tudors, I quickly sought out Elizabeth.  The film's trailer certainly looked promising:

The film takes place nine years after the death of King Henry the VIII and begins with the struggle for the throne of England between his two children Mary Tudor (Kathy Burke) and Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett).  The elder Mary becomes Queen but proves to be a bit unpopular since she has a nasty penchant for burning scores of people at the stake who don't share her orthodox interpretation of Catholic dogma.

When Mary falls deathly ill after only five years of turbulent rule, she nearly has her own sister put to death for fear that she will drive another wedge between the Church of England and the Vatican.  Despite her accurate predictions, Mary's hand is mercifully stayed and Elizabeth becomes her successor in 1559.  Elizabeth's  commitment to the Protestant Church seems to impress the general populace but it also earns her a cadre of enemies both in the clergy as well as amongst her advisors.

As if this isn't enough to cope with, she's also forced to  abandon her childhood love Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), tolerate advances from the skeezy Duke of Anjou, unravel secret plots to overthrow her, and combat rebellious French-backed Scottish forces led by her arch-rival Mary of Guise.  At first the twenty-three-year-old monarch tries to rule with her heart, but after a spate of early defeats she quickly begins to realize that her soft nature and desire to be loved by all can't be reconciled with being Queen.

What follows is an illuminating character study about how even a good soul is constantly assailed by absolute power.  The fact that Elizabeth's screenwriter Michael Hirst was the also the creator, executive producer, and head scribe for The Tudors lends the experience of watching both back to back an odd feeling of seamless continuity.  Like the four-season series that followed, Elizabeth boasts sumptuous and appropriately extravagant sets, costuming and photography.  The coronation sequences, the meeting with the French envoys and the court scenes are all handsomely mounted.

Cate Blanchett is flawlessly cast.  She's asked to inhabit several incarnations of this amazing woman, whether it be naive romantic, betrayed lover, pragmatic statesman or ruthless and stoic monarch.  The composition, editing and performance of her pivotal rehearsal prior to addressing a hostile Parliament is fascinating.  It's clear that she's terrified, and initially this causes her to be flustered by her critics when she goes before them.  But its gratifying to watch her diligent preparation begin to pay off.  Halfway through this trial by fire a switch seem to go off in her head.  She composes herself, uses humor to communicate the logic of her stance and then delivers the coup de grace in the debate with several well-measured declarations.

Of course, it certainly helps that her Machiavellian advisor, Francis Walsingham has taken it upon himself to detain some of the Queen's worst dissenters.  The great Geoffrey Rush is expertly cold and unreadable as Walsingham as he endeavors  to spare his Queen some of the more unsavory aspects of decision-making.

The stable of memorable performances is rounded out by some terrific supporting roles.  Sir Richard Attenborough is alternately frustrated and earnest as Elizabeth's senior advisor William Cecil. Christopher Eccleston brings plenty of passion, verve and ruthlessness to the role of conspirator Thomas Howard.

Joseph Fiennes is tremendous as Elizabeth's secret love interest.  Although his feelings for her never seems to diminish, Dudley's insecurity is palpable and we can see how his weakness and betrayal was instrumental in Elizabeth's transformation into the venerable "Virgin Queen".  Also, sharp-eyed viewers can have fun spotting future Bond Daniel Craig as a fervent papal assassin, Sir John Gielgud as Pope Pius V and Tudors graduate James Frain as the ill-fated Alvaro de la Quadra.

My only complaint is that the film actually feels a bit truncated, knowing that Elizabeth's story is just beginning as we watch the stellar final shot.  Otherwise, this is a fantastic portrait of how even an idealistic   humanitarian's soul can sometimes be colored by the pressures and often distasteful demands of political survival.  I'll certainly be seeking out the 2007 sequel as soon as I can.

Tilt: up.

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