Wednesday, 28 September 2011

100 Days, 100 Films; Day 96 - Elizabeth

#5 - Elizabeth:
Now being the proud Brit that I am of course any time I actually review a British film you’ve expected me to go wild and crazy over the fact that it’s British. This film in particular is no different but it has the distinction of being the final British film on my list. Well I say it is set in Britain and revolves around a very British topic so of course there is no better way than to close that little chapter than with a film about the greatest monarch England ever had. This actually differs from the typical British period piece since it was directed by an Indian with a lot more dramatic style of storytelling as well as showing plenty of grit of the time such as poverty, torture and dirt. Now I present to you: Elizabeth!

The film opens in the year 1558 during the reign of Mary Tudor, better known as Bloody Mary. Just to emphasize the state the country is in we open with a graphic scene of three Protestants, deemed “heretics” by her Majesty, being burned at the stake. It turns out they had been part of a rebellion to overthrow Mary and place her popular half-sister on the throne. Convinced that her sister had some part in the rebellion, Mary sends Elizabeth to the Tower of London for questioning. Elizabeth denies any participation in the rebellion and is reluctantly let go. She soon receives word that Mary has died and she has been named the successor. Elizabeth is triumphantly crowned Queen of England but her reign isn’t secure. Her councillors urge her to marry and produce an heir to secure it but she is more interested in her affair with childhood friend Lord Robert Dudley. In addition to the endless suitors that try to court her, Elizabeth must also deal with a conspiracy to have her murdered and place someone Catholic on the throne. The film shows her evolve into the famous Virgin Queen that she is now remembered as.

The filmmakers have admitted that they didn’t start making the film to be a biopic of Queen Elizabeth but rather a film about a conspiracy in her court and it eventually evolved into the film we got. As always you can’t expect complete historical accuracy in a film like this and it gets thrown out the window in the first ten minutes when Elizabeth is addressed as “princess” (she was declared illegitimate at age 3 and only called “Lady Elizabeth” from then on) and characters such as Sir William Cecil and Francis Walsingham were much younger in real life than the age they are in this. Obviously you can guess from those little titbits that I know my English history, which actually stems from when my brother brought home the Horrible Histories book about the Tudor family and I of course was the one who got the full blast of his new historical knowledge. Honestly Elizabeth wasn’t my favourite out of them since I was much more interested in Henry VIII and his six wives as well as Mary and her five year reign of terror. I’ve actually never watched The Tudors though it is on my to-do list and I haven’t seen that many films about either of them though I watched The Other Boleyn Girl and the historical liberties were a little too much to take seriously. The early parts of this film were based on the period I was interested in but I was still so fascinated by Elizabeth’s growth as a character that I kept on watching.

We have Cate Blanchett in the title role which could be considered ironic since you have an Australian giving the best performance as England’s greatest Queen. Yep, I said it. Sorry Helen Mirren and Judi Dench as well as up yours little red-haired actress at the end of The Other Boleyn Girl. Cate Blanchett did have her work cut out for her since all the historical accounts have Elizabeth as this fearsome monarch which is the face she presented to the world while Cate had to show Elizabeth’s real face as well that she wore in private, or at least the one the filmmakers imagined she had. One scene that works really well is one where Elizabeth is rehearsing what she will say in parliament that day to the bishops and is getting all flustered but then it cuts to her in court speaking easily. I knew of her very well before I saw this film so it was easy for me to just think of her as Cate Blanchett at the start but she was Elizabeth the whole way through the film. She wasn’t Cate Blanchett in period costume, she was Elizabeth. And yes she did deserve that Oscar and no Gwyneth Paltrow most certainly did not.

Now her male co-stars are first Geoffrey Rush who sounds wrong without the pirate voice as Francis Walshingham, the chief advisor in Elizabeth’s court. He pretty much seems like the guy most likely to switch sides at some point but he doesn’t and remains loyal to Elizabeth the whole way through. Joseph Fiennes plays Lord Robert and he is someone whom I have never seen in anything other than some kind of period drama. There’s this, Shakespeare In Love, The Merchant of Venice and most recently Camelot so I don’t know if he even owns any modern clothes. Richard Attenborough gives a great performance as Sir William Cecil and reminds us all that he did something other than unleash Jurassic Park on the unsuspecting American heroes. Christopher Eccleston once again hides his northern accent to play the shady and calculating Duke of Norfolk in one of his more interesting roles. I’d also like to applaud Kathy Burke for her portrayal of Queen Mary whom I wish could have been in the film more but of course there’s always possibilities for a Mary Tudor biopic isn’t there? Daniel Craig also has a very small role as a bishop plotting against Elizabeth but I’m not sure if he even has any lines in the film. Man United fans will applaud at the sight of Eric Cantona in an epic moustache playing the French Ambassador.

I mentioned earlier about the graphic burning scene at the beginning and it really sets the tone as the film has actually been described as a horror film pretending to be a historical pageant. We get some hard-to-watch shots of the prisoners being scalped and then burned. It really puts across how terrifying it is to be a Protestant in England at the time and you can hear people screaming to help the martyrs but of course no one can or else they’ll be thrown on the fire as well.
My favourite scene is the coronation which has so much effort put into it as you can see that the costumes are based on Elizabeth’s actual coronation portrait and Cate Blanchett looks near identical to that painting in the shot where she finally sits down on the throne. The big scene towards the end where Elizabeth makes herself into The Virgin Queen is excellent and so dramatic with how she has her long red locks cut off and white paint rubbed over her skin before finally appearing in the wig, the white gown and the makeup. She’s both beautiful and terrifying at the same time, I’m glad I wasn’t on set for that scene as I don’t think I’d be able to take her walking by me in that costume.

Now this is indeed the film that kickstarted Cate Blanchett’s career and introduced her to Hollywood. It is one of many films made about the Tudor period and obviously I consider it to be the best though admittedly I haven’t seen that many. It isn’t that historically accurate as I think the last properly factual scene is about half an hour before the film’s ending but we don’t see films for accuracy do we? It deserved all the nominations and it did win the Oscar for Best Makeup and at least Cate bagged the Best Actress Golden Globe. I did watch the second film and it was quite good as well but I didn’t include it on the list because it obviously wasn’t as well done as this one and I really just wasn’t that into the particular time period it was showing though I will say again it is worth watching if you loved this film. Now if this was a video blog I could end this entry with a rousing rendition of God Save The Queen but I sometimes think that patriotism can go a little too far so I’ll use my common sense (a most English virtue this film tells us) and remind you all to follow me on Twitter and if you’re dressing up as Elizabeth for Halloween don’t use historically accurate face paint as you’ll likely end up looking more like King Baldwin from Kingdom of Heaven.

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