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#11. Elizabeth (1998) & #12. Elizabeth (2000 Documentary) - Review / Anlaysis

Elizabeth 1998 PosterThe 1998 film Elizabeth, a period piece examining the rise to power of perhaps the most celebrated of the English matriarchs Queen Elizabeth I, had the arduous task of portraying a well-documented and highly regarded event in history on screen. While possibly to the dislike of British historians world-round, director Shekhar Kapur takes advantage of his artistic license to treat the subject matter as malleable fiction instead of concrete fact. Specifically Kapur, along with screenwriter Michael Hirst, plays with the specifics of the film’s main characters. To best facilitate their narrative, the duo liberally adjusted not just the particulars of Queen Elizabeth, Sir William Cecil, Sir Francis Walshingham, and Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester, but also remodels the characters’ integrity and intentions for the greater good of filmmaking.

The film essentially begins as the Queen Mary Tudor’s reign is coming to an end. Desperately trying to convert England into a fully Catholic nation before a brain tumor ends her life, Mary is fearful of her protestant half-sister Elizabeth ascending the throne after her death. Following a stint in the infamous Tower of London, Elizabeth outlived her older sister and, at the vexation of many Catholic clergymen and Royal Family assemblymen, Elizabeth took the throne as Queen of England in 1558.

The majority of the drama in the film is derived from Elizabeth’s relationship with Robert Dudley, and her insistence on remaining unmarried. Many scholars question just how accurate the portrayal of the Queen and Dudley’s love is in the film. In the beginning of the movie Elizabeth is shown meeting and becoming quite enamored by the handsome Dudley, forming a quick and passionate bond. Soon after, the film jumps to the Queen’s incarceration in the Tower of London for alleged acts of treason, however, according to according to the website Elizabethi.org, “When Elizabeth was taken to the Tower in 1554, Robert Dudley was already incarcerated there for his part in his fathers attempt to usurp the throne for his daughter in law, Lady Jane Grey.” This alone cannot and should not be held against the director, dates and locations are mere details, beholden only to whoever is crafting his or her story. Elizabeth does more than just manipulate the details of events however; it completely rewrites the intentions of Robert Dudley.Elizabeth 1998 Poster

In the film Robert Dudley is a loyal subject to Queen Elizabeth, and with implied scenes of romance and coupling, was also the “Virgin Queen’s” lover. Some historians would argue with this notion, like those found at Elizabethi.org for they believe that “…it is unlikely that Robert Dudley and the Queen had a sexual relationship, for various reason, and their love affair had not begun at the time of her coronation. In all probability, the Queen was the virgin she claimed to be.” Passion is not the only emotion tinkered with in the film, but also devotion and loyalty. In the film Elizabeth is staggered by the revelation that Dudley was in fact already married, which eventually leads to a heartbreaking split between the two lovers and instigates Dudley treasonous plotting against the throne. All of this appears to be nothing more than wild inventiveness for drama’s sake. According to the 2000 documentary on Queen Elizabeth I hosted by David Starkey, not only had Elizabeth known of Dudley’s marriage to Amy Robsart, she attended their wedding. Starkey does go on to explain that his wife was ill and that there were rumors that both he and the Queen were simply waiting for the poor woman to die so they could marry. Even that seems unlikely considering that the documentary briefly mentions that Elizabeth ventured to marry Dudley off to Mary Queen of Scotts because it would not only solve issues with England’s foreign affairs, but also alleviate some of the stress created in her court by her perceived relationship with Dudley. Devotion indeed. As far as the film’s portrayal of Dudley’s devious plot to assassinate the Queen, ElizabethI.org defends the real Dudley’s honor, “Robert Dudley was never involved in a treasonous plot to kill the Queen. He was her closest friend throughout her life, and did all that he could to preserve her life… Elizabeth and Robert remained close throughout their lives… she was devastated at his death.”

Her two most loyal subjects in the film were Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough) and Francis Walshingham (Geoffrey Rush). In the film Cecil is a man of considerable age. Having served under her father Henry VIII, Elizabeth continues that trustworthy relationship with Cecil and he serves her for the early years of her reign until she made him Lord Burghley and forced him to retire. In truth, William Cecil was only in his thirties when he was made principal secretary of state. He served the Queen for over 40 years, and was never forced to retire. The film portrays him as a devout loyalist to the crown, concerned only with the wellbeing of his majesty. According to Volume 1. of The English Heritage, “Cecil founded a notable political dynasty and lined his pockets with the profits of office, but Elizabeth judged that he would always be loyal and steer a middle course.” (103) This more profiteering councilor is nowhere to be found in Elizabeth. As for Walshingham, the film’s ninjaesqe assassin and calculating strategist, his mysteriousness is a fun distraction from the film’s more serious concerns. While he was in fact Elizabeth’s “spymaster” and trusted head of security, Kapur greatly downplays Walshingham’s passion for his protestant beliefs, as well as his home life. In fact, although he was married twice, the film hints that he was a homosexual.

Elizabeth 1998 PosterThe image of the queen herself is somewhat altered in the film as well. Blanchett portrays the queen somewhat unsure of herself, at times intimidated by her station. It should be remembered that Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII, born royalty and highly educated. The notion that she would be easily manipulated or even intimidated by her “subjects” seems somewhat ridiculous. And for what could have been perceived as uncertainty may have been her strategy. “ She often delayed making decisions, and her procrastination often worked to advantage when she was confronted with insurmountable problems.” (Youngs Jr., 103) ElizabethI.org also argues with the film’s depiction of the young Queen cutting her hair to resemble the Virgin Mary. “Elizabeth did not early in her reign decide to cut off her hair and paint her face, to make herself like the Virgin Mary. While she was always careful in cultivating her public image, the association of her with virginity was a slow process and one that developed over time. It was not until about 20 years into her reign… that the legend of the Virgin Queen really began to emerge.”

Shekhar Kapur’s film Elizabeth is a sweeping, dramatic look at one of the most influential and compelling person in history. Filled with enigmatic characters, theatrical love triangles, gripping plot twists, and one indomitable woman, Elizabeth can and should be forgiven for its fictional transgressions. It may be hard for historians to swallow the offenses against actuality found throughout the film, but what is a director’s artistic license for if not to swerve off the road of truth once in a while in the name of entertainment?

Clark, Steven, Dir. Elizabeth. Perf. Starkey, David. 2000.Film.

"Frequently Asked Questions." www.elizabethi.org. N.p., n.d.Web. 4 Oct 2011. <http://www.elizabethi.org/us/faq/two.htm>.

Kapur, Shekhar, Dir. Elizabeth. Perf. Blanchett, Cate. FocusFeatures, 1998. Film.

Youngs, Frederick. The English Heritage. 3rd. 1. Wheeling, IL:Harlan Davidson, 1999. 211. Print.

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