Review: Elizabeth (1998)

Recently I saw a trailer for the upcoming movie Elizabeth: The Golden Age. It stars Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I, the English monarch of the latter half of the 16th century. Cate Blanchett, like Jody Foster, is one of these actors incapable of giving a bad performance, so I made a note to see the movie when it comes out this October.

This movie will not be the first time that Ms. Blanchett has portrayed Elizabeth I. In 1998, she starred in Elizabeth, sometimes referred to as Elizabeth: The Virgin Queen. It is not often that an actor gets to reprise a role. To whet our appetite for this latest movie, we Netflixed the original 1998 movie.

Elizabeth I was a crucial monarch at a critical time in England’s history. She ascended to the throne on the death of her stepsister, Mary Tudor, a die-hard Roman Catholic. Since Mary Tudor ascended to the throne after the death of her infamous father King Henry VIII, Protestantism had yet to take firm hold in England. Mary Tudor, Elizabeth’s stepsister, came close to having Elizabeth executed for her Protestant inclinations. Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry’s second marriage with Anne Boleyn, spent two months in the Tower of London but was eventually placed under house arrest. It was the monarch Elizabeth I who institutionalized the Church of England. As the film makes clear, she did this at her own great peril. Elizabeth I had many enemies. Both Spain and France sought to control England by courting her in hand in marriage. The pope gave orders for her murder. Her refusal to get married for the good of the state established her as The Virgin Queen as well as the last of the Tudors.

The film does a great job of making you believe you are at the latter half of the 16th century. At the time, England was virtually broke. Its navy would come later. Only its relative isolation from the continent allowed it to escape invasion. Not that England had not suffered its share of invaders before, but none (not even the Romans) had wholly succeeded. Elizabeth I would prove a transformational monarch. After some initial missteps, she would demonstrate wise judgment that would eventually propel England into the league of great world powers.

Life was often short and brutal in those days. This is demonstrated in the opening scene, in which three Protestant heretics are publicly burnt at the stake. Elizabeth was just one woman vying for the throne. To the north was also Mary Queen of Scotts, a Catholic who, upon Mary Tudor’s passing, worked to end the apostasy of Elizabeth’s reign. As the queen’s counselor, Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough) did his best to ensure England’s safety by attempting to persuade Elizabeth to marry. In addition to foreign suitors, Elizabeth had a private lover, Sir Robert Dudley, the Earl of Liecester, played by Joseph Fiennes. Each though had their own motives and true love has little to do with their affections. As a young woman, Elizabeth has to make sense of the political intrigue and chaos around her as well as fend off multiple assassination attempts.

Fortunately, Elizabeth had one friend savvy enough to help her wend her way through the political intrigue all around her: Sir Francis Walsingham, played to perfection by Geoffrey Rush. The movie suggests that without his conniving that Elizabeth might have fatally faltered. How close the movie is to the actual truth is hard to discern, but his presence does make for a gripping movie. I am delighted to see that he will be reunited with Cate Blanchett in this latest movie. I do not know if there is a third story in the queen’s later life worthy of making a trilogy of films, but I hope there is.

For those who loved the movie Braveheart, Elizabeth will have a familiar feel. As you would expect for a major motion picture, the acting is uniformly excellent and the period is faithfully portrayed. If you are anxious to see the latest movie but have not seen the first movie, now is the time to rent it. If you are the squeamish type, you may find a few scenes quite disturbing but they likely understate the violence of the era. As for Cate Blanchett’s performance, you will not be disappointed.

Elizabeth earns a 3.3 on my 4.0 scale.

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