by Cathleen Myers
Most of the critics who have praised Shekhar Kapur’s Oscar-nominated film so excessively have agreed that Elizabeth "takes some liberties with history." This is a serious understatement. The film is historically preposterous from beginning to end.
Of course, no one expects a film to be a literal transcription of history. All historically based films take liberties with historical fact, as indeed they must: Time is telescoped, characters are combined and eliminated, and irrelevant incidents conveniently overlooked. Our quarrel with Elizabeth is that screenwriter Michael Hirst completely rewrites English history for no apparent theatrical reason. Imagine a movie about the American Civil War in which General Ulysses S. Grant is executed for treason for his role in conspiring with the Confederacy; or a World War II movie in which General Patton fights for the Germans; or a docudrama about the Clinton impeachment in which the female characters are named Monica Willey and Gennifer Lewinsky.
Yes, Elizabeth is really that egregiously awful. And it’s not just the minor details that go wrong – though the film is littered with careless inaccuracies. Hirsh, for example, has clearly confused sexy Maid-of-Honour Lettice Knollys with her devout mother Lady Knollys - an understandable, if stupid mistake - and we’re still trying to figure out why Leicester’s mistresses Lettice Knollys and Douglas Howard are called Lettice Howard and Isabel Knollys in the film. This kind of carelessness might be acceptable in a Disney cartoon but not in a serious historical film! Hirsh also has the villainous Catholic Bishop Gardiner serving under Elizabeth - something he never could have done, even if he hadn’t died before her accession! And why are the Queen’s bishops - mostly moderate Protestants - part of the anti-Elizabeth party?
Some of Hirsh and Kapur’s other "liberties" are very serious: The film’s central villain – the shrewd Machiavellian leader of the Roman Catholic conspiracy – is Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. As the inept Norfolk was Protestant, not Catholic, and was not the actual leader of the Northern Rebellion, he is a curious choice for Major Villain. The crowning idiocy of the film, however, is the execution of the Earl of Sussex for his involvement in the Northern Rebellion. In reality Sussex was the Queen’s loyal general who actually put down the Northern Rebellion.
If Norfolk and Sussex are curious choices for villains, Sir Francis Walsingham is an equally odd choice for hero. Walsingham (played in the film as a worldly wise older man) was actually only three years older than Elizabeth and played no significant part at Court until the latter half of her reign. While the Queen certainly respected his talents, she distrusted radical Protestant politics and they never had the kind of close relationship in reality that they have in the film. If Elizabeth could be said to have a right hand man, it was Sir William Cecil (later Lord Burleigh), who – incidentally – was never dismissed from her service only to be supplanted by Walsingham, as he is in the film. Elizabeth liked a balance of power and kept a politically balanced Council.
Walsingham was, indeed, a shrewd and effective secret agent and, eventually, spy master for the Queen, and Geoffrey Rush’s Machiavellian yet sternly loyal characterization is in some ways very true to life, however many idiotic things the film makes him do. But Walsingham’s climactic assassination plot in the film is so absurd that it would have been rejected as unrealistic in a James Bond spec script: In what is supposed to be a suspenseful scene, Walsingham dines at a small private party with Mary of Guise (Dowager Queen of Scotland) and then, after seducing her, assassinates her in bed – a plot twist that should only happen in a "B" movie starring Sean Connery’s untalented brother Neil.
The film’s love interest is the Queen’s not very secret affair with Lord Robert Dudley (later Earl of Leicester). Since we’ll never know if they actually ever slept together, the film is certainly free to speculate on the subject. Cate Blanchett is, admittedly, a lovely, regal Elizabeth look-alike and Joseph Fiennes is perfectly cast as her devastatingly handsome but shallow and ambitious lover. But students of Elizabethan history will also tell you that the real story of Elizabeth’s affair with Leicester is far more fascinating than the film suggests (and the suspiciously sudden death of his first wife is one of the more intriguing unsolved mysteries).
Visually, Elizabeth is impressive with lavish sets and costumes, but conveys little sense of period. At times the sound track features real Elizabethan music (Susato’s dance suite, for instance) but the music that accompanies Elizabeth’s transformation into The Virgin Queen is from Mozart’s Requiem! More than one Elizabethan costume historian (including Shelley Monson, Court costume director for the Northern Renaissance Pleasure Faire) has remarked that the ladies’ court costumes look far more Italian than English. Apparently, costume designer Alexandra Byrne was instructed not to look at books on Renaissance costume, perhaps as part of Kapur’s vision. The choreographer obviously didn’t look at any period dance manuals, either, and the dance sequences are both inaccurate and tepid. We see Dudley and dashing Sir Christopher Hatton dancing the athletic galliard but from the waist up, thus destroying the effect. The La Volta scenes in the film bear almost no resemblance to Arbeau’s actual choreography (easily available both online and in print!) and, even more absurdly, the aerials are shown up close so that you really don’t even see the full effect. Imagine filming a ballet or a swing dance demo and only showing the dancers' torsos.
Critics have drawn parallels between Elizabeth and The Godfather, as the young queen learns that the secret of rulership is to skillfully and ruthlessly eliminate one’s enemies. There were certainly Renaissance princes – of both sexes – whose tactics make Michael Corleone look like an amateur. But this was simply not Elizabeth’s style. She was a master of dissimulation, of political balance, and of playing off her advisers, allies and enemies against each other, but by Renaissance standards was relatively slow to use the Final Solution.
If Elizabeth is indeed supposed to mature into a Godfather figure, the film’s denouement is disappointing. By the end of the film, this Elizabeth has learned not to trust her own judgement but to rely on Walsingham. Her self-conscious transformation into a living icon - The Virgin Queen - is supposed to be highly affecting (with the Maids of Honour weeping as they, quite unnecessarily, cut the Queen’s hair short) but is more likely to leave the audience thinking of the death of Mozart in Amadeus.
The film’s conclusion impressively states that Elizabeth "reigned another 43 years." (presumably to set our minds at ease about her survival of all these plots and counterplots), thus firmly setting the date at 1560 – which was years before most of the onscreen events happened! If you’re going to telescope the events of a reign, isn’t it supremely stupid to mention specific dates?
Return to Film Reviews
PEERS Home Page.