Elizabeth was one of Cate Blanchett's earlier films that had propelled her to stardom given that it won her a couple of major acting awards in her role as the titular Queen who ushered in what was the Golden Age in English history. I had seen the sequel Elizabeth The Golden Age some three years ago also directed by Shekhar Kapur, and this film dealt with Elizabeth's rise to power and ascension to the throne, ending with her consolidating her influence and having that grip on her court and kingdom.
Period films about the English monarchy has always been rich material for filmmakers to dwell into, such as Justin Chadwick with his The Other Boleyn Girl which featured one generation earlier with Elizabeth's mother Anne Boleyn. This film skips everything then and jumps in at the point where Queen Mary I decided to imprison her half sister Elizabeth into the Tower of London for treason and for her Protestant faith, before illness and a whole host of politicking that didn't succeed meant Elizabeth succeeded Mary as ruler of England when the latter passes away.
Michael Hirst's story deals with the rise of Elizabeth to power, and how she develops from girly girl, into the powerful yet lonely woman at the apex of her kingdom. Cate Blanchett brings a sense of vulnerability in her performance early in the film as the girl thrust into the hot seat where her innocence makes her instant fodder for conspirators to pounce upon and usurp the throne for herself. Being ruler of the land means a certain steely determination required, and charm to ensure policies get pushed through, and the episodes selected and highlighted in the film goes about doing just that. Not only that, the film has this constant sense of fear going on, of not knowing what to do, and who exactly to trust, and Blanchett brings about this quality, and other qualities associated with the role in flawless terms.
The pressures of course come from all quarters, where even allies consistently tells upon her to fulfill certain conditions for power consolidation, where as a woman she's quite expected to marry and to produce an heir under a political marriage either with the Spanish or the French, since she had inherited what's essentially a bankrupt country. Danger lurks primarily from the Catholics, who deem her position in the country inappropriate, calling her a heretic spreading heresy with her faith. Yes, there's this constant subtext and battle between religions here, with even Daniel Craig starring as a priest on the orders of the Pope at the Vatican to do what's necessary to rid England of her.
Then there's always the danger from affairs of the heart, where her relationship with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes) is out in the open and in a scene probably will raise some eyebrows since Elizabeth is much touted as the Virgin Queen. But hey, with every film biopic, artistic and dramatic license is always taken, and this serves but one angle of how the director wants to portray this concept. The main suitor comes in the form of Vincent Cassel's cross dressing Duc d'Anjou, who is quite the comical farce, in a relationship desired to be brokered by Monsieur de Foix played by Eric Cantona. You read that right, the football star in what's probably his earliest major film role in English.
Unlike the sequel, there's no major action sequence here, not only because of the smaller budget. But that doesn't mean that it's less engaging, because what will hook you in is the political intrigue and conspiracy brewing at every corner of the Elizabeth rulership, where allies can become hidden enemies, and political survival is of the utmost concern. Both Richard Attenborough and Geoffrey Rush shine in their role as stoic advisors to the Queen, especially Rush's Sir Francis Walsingham who also commands the clandestine spy operations to ensure the eradication of the Queen's enemies. In some ways I thought the finale had resembled very closely to The Godfather's, with an opera soundtrack playing over a montage of assassinations being carried out simultaneously.
If you, like me, have an insatiable appetite for period movies about Kings and Queens in their darkest days, then give Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth, probably the most definitive film out there, a go, and not to forget the sequel as well. Recommended.
The Region 1 DVD by Universal presents the feature film in an anamorphic widescreen format with audio in English 2.0 or 5.1 Dolby Surround, and subtitles in French and Spanish. Scene selection is available over 20 chapters.
The Special Features aren't much on the disc, with all the features presented in letterbox format. The most substantial feature on the disc will be the Director's Commentary, where Shekhar Kapur begins with explaining why he happens to be the director of the film, which is something he always get asked. He goes in depth about the technical aspects in making the film and is a one-man film school in explaining how things get done, and he's extremely frank to go into what exactly he liked, and disliked in his own movie.
The Making of Elizabeth (24:52) contains the usual behind the scenes clips together with talking heads interview segments with the crew and cast who talk about the production process and their characters. This is followed by a meaningless Elizabeth Featurette (6:01) which serves as a very limited extension to the making of feature, since a good portion consists of a trailer of sorts. There is also the Teaser Trailer (1:31) and the Theatrical Trailer (2:30). Rounding off the special features are the Photo Gallery consisting of 39 stills from the film and behind the scenes, and text based biographies of Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Fiennes, John Gielgud, Richard Attenborough and director Shekhar Kapur in the Cast & Filmmakers section.
I would have preferred if the extras had contained the many deleted scenes that Shakhur Kapur had mentioned in his director's commentary, but alas that is not to be in this DVD edition.