Wednesday, May 4, 2011

MM Movie Review: Elizabeth

There have been few films such as the celebrated 1998 bio-pic "Elizabeth" which are as brilliant as they are atrocious. As filmmaking goes, "Elizabeth" deserves every honor it was given and certainly Cate Blanchett was deserving of her Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in her role as the "Virgin Queen". However, "Elizabeth" also deserves to be known as yet one more contender for the position of the most horrific excuse for a historical film ever produced on the Tudor era of England. It is a very competitive field (even before television got into the act). How can I say this without sounding too hysterical? Well, put it this way: history is thrown out the window, run over by a truck and then stomped on. Get the idea?

The story is certainly an attractive one. It follows the young Elizabeth, starting in the final days of the reign of her sister Queen Mary I (who, as usual, is ugly and villainous less modern Brits fail to recognize her), following her through her own reign as she faces constant harassment from Scotland, France, Spain and even the dastardly Pope while dealing with a stressful romance with the Earl of Leicester. The problem is certainly not in the acting, which is superb. The cast contains some of the best in the business, masters of their craft and even a living legend or two. The characters are interesting, deep and well done in every way aside from the occasional cartoonish villain but these are pretty much restricted to Catholic clergy so everyone else, hero or villain, is in pretty good shape.

Catte Blanchett is Queen Elizabeth I, the young innocent who must overcome and find her inner strength; Geoffrey Rush is Sir Francis Walsingham, the unscrupulous, loyal, bisexual spymaster and secret police chief; Christopher Eccleston is the imperious, duplicitous and finally traitorous Duke of Norfolk; Joseph Fiennes is the tempestuous, lusty and frustrated Earl of Leicester, Sir John Gielgud appears as the murderous Pope (Pius V, I presume) and Lord Richard Attenborough is the faithful, fatherly and stressed Sir William Cecil. So, again, it is a superb cast and they have a truly epic period of history to work with, tailor-made for great filmmaking. As a film, it is lavish, dramatic, gripping, visually stunning and immensely entertaining. As anything even pretending to be history it is absolutely insulting to the name.

I knew I was in trouble as soon as I saw the opening scene: the wicked Catholic Bishop Gardiner having some saintly Protestants burned alive for heresy on order from "Bloody Mary", who is herself depicted as a vile, raving tyrant. In fact, the records show Mary I was the least of all her dynasty in having people executed. Moreover, Bishop Gardiner had no one in his own diocese executed, had opposed the Queen marrying Philip II of Spain and was generally considered a moderate. However, the historical lies in this movie are far too many to record every one. The Earl of Leicester is shown frolicking with Elizabeth at the start when he should have still been in the Tower for treason. The Duke of Norfolk is shown as one of Elizabeth's earliest enemies in a Catholic conspiracy, which he was not. His anti-Elizabeth actions came much later in the plot surrounding Queen Mary Stuart, and he was always vague about his religion but never declared himself to be anything other than an Anglican. In fact, he is shown urging Queen Mary to have her sister killed to keep her off the throne when, in truth, Mary was not thrilled with the thought of this herself and was persuaded to allow Elizabeth's succession only by her husband, King Philip II of Spain (who, again, is portrayed as a horrible villain so as not to confuse the Brits).

Keep up, there’s more. William Cecil is portrayed as an elderly and ready to retire statesman when in fact he was a robust, young man when Elizabeth came to the throne. Sir Francis Walsingham is depicted as a scheming, murderous homosexual whereas, while certainly scheming, he never killed anyone himself and was a happily married family man and a devout Protestant - certainly not a homosexual. The Duc d'Anjou is shown as a bizarre, cross-dressing pervert whom Elizabeth finds abhorrent, yet another fabrication. In fact, the Duc d'Anjou never came to England and the Queen was quite taken with him and considered him very seriously to be her husband or at least pretended so to annoy the Spanish. There is also at least a possibility that the romance with Lord Robert, Earl of Leicester was never sexual, and Elizabeth may well have been a 'real' "Virgin Queen". I tend to doubt it and in these day and age it seems positively unbelievable but, in fairness, I have to say that a case can be made for the Queen being as good as her title.

Leicester was also certainly not involved with any kind of plot against the Queen, nor was there a great falling out between the two, and contrary to the film, his marriage was a well known fact at court and Elizabeth met with him many, many times before her death. (let me catch my breath) It is also untrue that Leicester ever had affairs with the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, whom she kept a close eye on and no one ever sent the Queen a poisoned dress. The plot at the center of this film also never happened in anything like the way it was portrayed. It seems the filmmakers simply took all of the schemes against Elizabeth, invented some intrigue of their own, and put them all together, stuffed them in a blender and hit “mix”. Much of it seems to be connected to the historical trap set for Queen Mary Stuart, yet, she is never seen or mentioned in the film.

Who is mentioned is her regent, the Queen Mother of Scotland Marie d'Guise, played by the captivating Fanny Ardant. The part was, to me, one of the most interesting of the film and Ardant gives a spectacular performance of an intriguing character. Yet, fond as I am of devious, warrior-queens, there is no truth in any of this. Queen Marie d'Guise was no scheming zealout, never a threat to England (though Protestant England was certainly a threat to her) and it is a total fabrication that she was poisoned by Sir Francis Walsingham after a night of passion. Marie d'Guise died of natural causes while trying to reconcile the feuding Scots. At the time of her death, she bore no resemblance to the character on film. Instead of Fanny Ardant's attractive, mature woman look, imagine an older, heavier woman with swollen extremities and a case of dropsy. I'm a fan of Marie d'Guise, but as much as I would rather picture her as seen in the movie, it is simply not accurate. Not at all.

However, the film as a whole, as good as the look of it was, that look was totally inaccurate. Most of the sets look like they should be in a movie about the Middle Ages rather than Renaissance, Tudor England. The palaces all seem dark, dank, dreary (insert dungeon-like metaphor here). That may do for scenes in the Tower of London, but the court of Queen Elizabeth lived in much more splendid and cheerful mansions and palaces. The dingy, Gothic sets have about as much to do with Elizabethan England as the assassination attempt on the river barge (yet another fabrication).

Believe it or not, I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Still, I cannot overstate how much talent was shown in this movie, and how entertaining it was. Yet, as excellent as it was in the art of cinema it was absolutely horrific in the history department and paints a distorted view of the Tudor era and Queen Elizabeth. It opened with a lie and, fittingly enough, ended with one as well: although it is a powerful scene, Elizabeth did not start wearing white makeup and portraying herself as the statue-like "Virgin Queen" until well into the latter part of her reign. Oh, the humanity...


  1. I can't remember... this is a different film from "Elizabeth: the Golden Age", right? Because that one was also terrible unfair.

  2. I had no real expectations for this Film. Though I am surprised you watched them out of sequence, with “The Golden Age” coming before “Elizabeth” in review.

    That said, they do at least make a nice Counterbalance to the overly Pro American Ideology of Mel Gibson’s two Historical Dramas, “Braveheart” and “The Patriot”.

    England is not the Villain! Hurray!

    Pity about Spain… perhaps we can make a horrifically Historically inaccurate Film lionising Isabella or something…

  3. I so wanted to like this movie, not in the least because I very much like Cate Blanchette, but I just couldn't do it. It's simultaneously anti-Catholic, anti-French, anti-Spanish, anti-Scottish. Hell, sometimes it's even anti-English. Oh, yes, its somewhat anti-religion too since Elizabeth is portrayed as someone who has at best a Machiavellian interest in matters of faith and who must put up with all these religious nutters who actually believe that BS.

    All in all, it is basically a warped view of late Renaissance England seen through the eyes of very devout secularists.

  4. It is different, the "Golden Age" movie was a sequel to this one. Zarove, didn't watch them out of order, just reviewed them out of order (though honestly I'd forgotten that I'd reviewed the 'Golden Age' here). Spain was not so much the enemy in this one as the dual enemy of Franco-Scotland probably was.

    Nihilsubsole, you are correct and Protestants should not cheer this movie (moreso the sequel) just because they share their view of Catholics as just plain evil. The films don't really say that Protestants are good and Catholics are bad, they say that the Catholics are bad because they take their religion seriously and *really* believe it whereas Protestants in these movies are good because they don't really care about religion at all.

  5. So to quote the most excellent point of Nihil,

    "All in all, it is basically a warped view of late Renaissance England seen through the eyes of very devout secularists. "

    More of less another Historical revisionism designed to fit into the modern Secularist own Religious Mythology, that takes a hero of the past who is greatly revered and projects back onto her their own Ideals and Values, much like how Modern TEA parties portray America's Founders as devout Christians basing America on the Bible, especially the Book of Deuteronomy.

    it's really an attempt at linking your ideals to revered figures and using their story to preach your own message. A sort of Hijacked history, as it were.

  6. MM, what's your view on The Tudors on HBO? I've only seen bits of it, but it looks to be somewhat more accurate in that regard.

    And... well, expecting good history from Hollywood is like expect a pig to fly. When it happens, find a confessional.

  7. I never watched much. I started to and had every intention of sticking with it but the first few shows just put me off. There were many (many) historical innacuracies there as well but I could have got past that. What really put me off was the far too numerous soft-core porn scenes. Now, everyone knows I am not prudish (I was a big fan of HBO's "Rome" and God knows they left little to the imagination) but in the context of Tudor England it just annoyed me. Philanderer though he was, King Henry VIII was not some rampant pervert, he went to Church several times a day, disapproved of lewd talk or behavior and I can guaran-damn-tee you that Anne Boleyn did not do the things I saw her do on that show (and I'm certainly no huge fan of Anne Boleyn but fair is fair). If is is true, I'm fine with it, if it advances the story, I'm fine with it or if it is a bunch of pagans I would at least undestand but in the context of that show, the way it was handled, it just seemed like such a cheap, forced gimick.


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