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Directed by Shekhar Kapur


Cate Blanchett
Geoffrey Rush
Christopher Eccleston
Joseph Finnes
John Gielgud
Richard Attenborough
Fanny Ardent

Duration: 121 minutes

A movie review

by Jesse Gale

NEW YORK, 14 December 1998 - Shekhar Kapur’s new film biography of young Elizabeth I feels like a peach preserved in blood: its violence and its sensuality are too strange to accept easily. From the first ghastly moments, in which we behold Puritan martyrs scalped and burned alive while howling to their God, Elizabeth pursues an obsession with potency - potency of symbols, of political leadership, and of cinematographic image. In doing so, it provides us with an uncomfortably piercing experience, but one well worth enduring.

The story, of course, reaches a foregone conclusion: Elizabeth becomes the virgin queen. But little exposition is offered to the viewer who has forgotten her history lessons. Instead, the story is evoked, or revised, through allusive images. For example, when Elizabeth (played by a preternaturally wise Cate Blanchett) realizes that her advisors have undermined her reign by engineering a fruitless battle, we find her sobbing before a half-veiled portrait of her father, Henry VIII. Or when Elizabeth decides that she can have more political power by remaining unmarried, we find her sobbing in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary.

But even when it’s not framing these icons, the film speaks a dense language. Suggesting the gorgeous revulsion of Peter Greenaway’s films, Kapur’s camera seeks out potent, sensual images. Some are gruelingly ugly: the battlefields of the doomed 1560 campaign into Scotland, traitors’ heads atop pikes. But some shots reimagine flesh and light as heaven. How could young skin and sunlight have been so lovely? The juxtaposition is exquisite in every sense.

Kapur asks us, through this relentless sensual assault, to consider how one manages this sort of potency. In a scene depicting Elizabeth’s fight for a tolerant but unified English church, one bishop blusters: "This is heresy!" to which our trembling but plucky heroine replies, "No, my lords, this is common sense." The film celebrates Elizabeth’s ability to harness intensity - each time the burning hues of the screen bleach into white, we understand the significance of Elizabeth’s moderate presence in her war torn country. The unbearable richness of the drama effects a visceral appreciation for moderation. That is: the uncomfortably hysterical film makes us grateful for minds like Elizabeth’s, minds that run toward common sense.

The acting is uniformly impressive, though some will balk at the slitted eyes and cheshire cat grin that Blanchett chooses for her young Elizabeth. Joseph Fiennes, soon to portray that other famous Elizabethan in Shakespeare in Love, puts in a fine performance. It’s unusual to see a man as a beautiful love-interest, and such roles are bland, but Fiennes’s loveliness functions as it should. Geoffrey Rush works his hooded-eye gaze to good effect as the Machiavellian Walsingham, though his cold-blooded skulking has little depth. For me, the film was stolen early on by Kathy Burke, whose Bloody Mary veers between childish pride and real affection for her half-sister.

The Renaissance scholar Joan Thirsk has suggested that recipes of the 16th century use fruits as we would use spices because fruits of that time simply tasted too strong for people to eat much of them. Kapur offers us a taste of the 16th century, and its unbearable pungency can shock and instruct us.

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