Released 1998. Director: Shekhar Kapur
EVERYBODY WANTS HER DEAD. Elizabeth, the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, is thrust to the forefront of the English monarchy after the death of her half-sister, Queen Mary.
A heathen Protestant, the Catholic Church schemes to dethrone her. She's surrounded on all sides by inviegling characters. Every move she makes is keenly watched, her life rests precariously on a thin line. Who can she trust? What can she do?
Shekhar Kapur's vision of the Tudor court is fraught with eerie darkness and invisible dangers, like a witch's lair, full of traps and threatening turns. Deep
hallways echo with uncertainty, tall pillars disappear into unlit heights, grand costumes with elaborate embroidery, moody textures with saturated colours. In this unholy setting dripping with intrigue and murder, Elizabeth steps in as a frightened young woman shoved to the highest position in all of Europe. She must rule to keep her nation from falling apart, she must rule just to keep alive.
Kapur's art shows a leap of maturity from his critically acclaimed 1995 Indian movie Bandit Queen. While Bandit Queen is full of grit and raw energy in depicting Phoolan Devi the controversial political figure in India, Elizabeth is more studied and assured in its presentation. Both his interpretations of terrified women taking charge share a strong undercurrent of simmering tension and struggle, a palpable force amidst which the protagonist could turn out to be a pawn or a victor.
Without the bankability of a typical movie star, Cate Blanchett, little known outside Australia at the time, sets the screen aflame with her intense portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I. With smouldering charisma, her version of Elizabeth is insecure and feisty at the same time, determined and wielding the power of a lone survivor.
In the face of political manipulation, the movie pulls us in like iron dust to a magnet to its many layers of power play, drawing us closer to the dangers of an intricately crafted piece of cinematic entertainment. Suspense, drama, characterization, graphic sex, even more graphic killings, Elizabeth shows scant concern for audiences expecting a gentle fare.
It is a classy thriller in disguise, with sharp dialogue dipped in the blood of treason. Lovers, assassins, traitors, heretics, Elizabeth has the assembly of a most commanding presence.
From its opening scene of persecuted Protestants scalped and burned at the stake, Elizabeth makes it clear this is a highly charged dramatization of power struggle, and no blood will be spared along the way. In its wake, we experience an achievement that is bold, riveting, rich, a sheer bravura.