Elizabeth from 1998 is not only relevant, it’s radiantly dressed
British royalty is a tough beat in 2020. You have the hats and the handwaves. You have the relentless paparazzi and the creepy princes. You have to, increasingly, make the choice whether you want to live with the many burdens of a ceremonial title, powerless amid the political maelstrom — or take arms against a sea of troubles and effectively abdicate by moving to Canada with your movie-star spouse.
And yet, despite (or perhaps because of) its oddities, anachronisms, and myriad petty dramas, the crown is still the source of endless fascination for those of us who’ve done without one since 1776. That’s why we still buy the tabloids and tune into The Crown on Netflix with such fervor. That’s why we delve endlessly into the past for bigger, bolder, grander takes on the biggest, boldest, grandest monarchs in history.
Perhaps no English queen has been as synonymous with grandeur as Elizabeth I: the redheaded second child of Henry the VIII, last of the Tudor dynasty, one of the most successful royals of all time, and subject of the award-winning 1998 movie Elizabeth.
Shekhar Kapur’s film follows the young queen from days prior to her 1558 coronation through the various plots and challenges of her early reign.
Elizabeth is a lavish film, swathed in the gold-flecked silks and brocades of its era. It’s also literally and metaphorically dark. The young queen, a radiant Cate Blanchett, is beset on all sides by threats, ill-intentioned suitors, and an unstable country reeling from the shockwaves of Reformation and Counter-Reformation. In the film, she is often the sole spark of brilliant golden light in cavernous chambers overstuffed by shadowy men in dark velvets, almost none of whom, including Joseph Fiennes’ lovelorn Robert Dudley, seem to have the Queen’s best interests at heart.
The plot, or rather, collection of plots, is often as overwrought and convoluted as the palace interiors. Elizabeth I’s reign was famously full of challenges, though the film’s loyalty to actual history is malleable at best. Oftentimes, it eschews verisimilitude for Gothic melodrama. There is a seemingly endless array of mustache twirlers, as well as a bloodthirsty French/Scottish queen and assassination attempts aplenty — most memorably one involving a poisoned gown that would almost play as farce, were it not for the dramatic lighting.
Whether or not these aspects undercut the film is a matter of taste. Movies about kings and queens of old are less about the names and dates of the period and more about current mood. Elizabeth’s original release, in 1998, came scarcely more than a year after the death of Princess Diana. It’s hard not to see a tale of a young woman, constrained by position, betrayed by the men charged to protect her, and at constant threat by sneaky figures in the wings, as perhaps more relevant to 1998 than 1560. Nevertheless, Elizabeth as art is engaging, a wild ride, gorgeously arrayed, and enlivened by Blanchett’s commendable performance. Contemplate how heavy sits the crown for yourself.
Hendersonville Film Society presents Elizabeth on Sunday, March 22, 2pm, at Lake Pointe Landing (333 Thompson St., Hendersonville). Admission by donation. For more information, call 828-697-7310.