Bollywood meets The Godfather in Elizabeth, a rollicking good time which Gramercy Pictures, in a valiant effort to snare moviegoers who wouldn't go to a period picture if it came with a free diamond tiara, is pleased to call a "historical thriller." Actually, this repossession of the life of England's second-best-loved royal—next to Diana—plays more like a costumed gangster flick. The director, Bombay-born Shekhar Kapur, also made the enjoyably ridiculous Bandit Queen, a florid love letter to an Indian woman outlaw who made a career out of bloody revenge.
directed by Shekhar Kapur
starring Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Fiennes, Richard Attenborough
opens November 20 at Guild 45th
One good queen deserves another: Kapur's Elizabeth is no riot grrrl, but she's a quick study in the art of creative payback. Given the number of worshipfully leaden biopics about Henry VIII's spunky daughter, Kapur is wise to avoid lumbering his heroine with the numbing gravitas that weighed as heavily on Bette Davis in Michael Curtiz's 1939 Elizabeth the Queen, and Glenda Jackson in the 1971 BBC miniseries Elizabeth R, as their crowns and gowns. Played with an enchanting blend of discipline and relish by Australian actress Cate Blanchett, who breathed joy into the otherwise moribund Oscar and Lucinda, this Elizabeth begins her rocky passage to sovereignty as a good-time girl with a wickedly crooked grin and an abundance of appetites. She also has her father's instinct for politicking. It's a gift that narrowly saves her from the chopping block to which her devoutly Catholic half-sister, Queen Mary (played by Kathy Burke to a pitch of prim disapproval that would make Kenneth Starr look flighty), is preparing to consign her. Within minutes, Mary does history a favor by dying young, which propels Elizabeth out of the Tower and onto the throne. Mercifully, Kapur whips past the interminable coronation spectacles that clog so many movies about royalty, and plunges the young queen into the Royal Court, a viper's nest filled with backstabbers, hangers-on, fornicators, and other essential personnel of the action picture.
Kapur has mined the usual textbooks for his premise: Elizabeth finessed her image as the Virgin Queen retroactively, as a cunning ploy to dispatch those with designs on her power base. Whether or not the young princess was sleeping with her childhood sweetheart, Robert Dudley, we'll never know for sure. But Kapur has a steamy movie to make, so he assumes they were hard at it all along. (As Dudley, Joseph Fiennes faithfully upholds his big brother Ralph's tradition of looking fretful at all times, even during carnal interface with England's most eligible bachelorette.) While the pair cavorts behind gauzy veils and blurred focus (a device liberally employed by Kapur, presumably to suggest that Elizabeth's private life increasingly plays second fiddle to her public role), danger lurks in the wings. Elizabeth gets busy acting on misguided counsel from her official adviser, Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough, his shiny mug imprisoned in a tight collar and crusher hat, resembles an agitated tomato), unaware that ill will looms in the various shapes of the ambitious Duke of Norfolk— played by Christopher Eccleston, one flare of whose roomy nostrils is enough to send packs of terrified loyalists rushing for the exits; the pope (John Gielgud, who else?), none too happy with Elizabeth's plans to plow ahead with her father's abandonment of Catholicism for his freshly minted Church of England; and a bunch of foreign potentates bent on marrying the queen for all the wrong reasons.
Under the savvy guidance of her spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush, oozing slime), the queen comes to appreciate that mercy toward her enemies, especially those she thought were friends, is a luxury she can't afford. Just the excuse for a fun-filled mop-up-the-opposition sequence that's brazenly lifted from The Godfather Part II. Kapur is hardly the first director to rob Coppola blind, nor will he be the last. And he has accessorized with his own theater of cruelty, portentously shot from below (victims) and above (villains): Protestants blaze merrily on pyres; astonished heads sit impaled on pikes; Elizabeth's French suitor, the Duke of Anjou, turns out to be a shrieking cross-dresser and his scheming aunt a wild-eyed Medusa, while the French ambassador (played by Manchester United star player Eric Cantona) wouldn't look out of place in the ring with Mike Tyson.
Yet Kapur is also adept at switching his tone. For all its giddy plotting, Elizabeth works as an intelligent think piece about women and politics that transcends its time and place. It isn't only private heartbreak that moves Elizabeth to give her beloved Dudley the brush-off, chop off her long red tresses, and appear in public in chalky whiteface. For her, laying claim to virginity is the canny gambit of a trained politician who has learned the hard way that a woman who would be queen must pay a price not required of kings: She doesn't get to have a life of her own. "Observe, Lord Burleigh," says Elizabeth with palpable satisfaction to the now retired Cecil, who had tried his damnedest to wed her to Spain or France. "I am married to England." And a fine, monogamous union it was, for 44 prosperous years. Ah, Diana, had you hit the history books, you'd have learned from Elizabeth that a royal girl who wants to have fun can please crowds, but she can't also expect to rule the world, let alone a husband.
Ella Taylor, film critic for LA Weekly, is a former Seattle Weekly staff writer.