Historical films, at their best, can bring the past alive and transport their audiences back to a time when the world was brimming with possibilities. At their worst, they can make the past seem like a stodgy pageant of vaguely connected costume changes.
Elizabeth, the new film about the consolidation of political and religious power under Queen Elizabeth I, falls mostly into the former category, but it packs so many issues — not to mention 16 years of tightly-woven history — into its two hours that there is little room left in which to engage with these characters on a more personal and dramatic level.
England is in chaos when the film begins. Henry VIII and his son are dead, and his firstborn daughter, the Catholic Queen Mary (Kathy Burke), is burning Protestants three at a time and debating whether or not to execute her half-sister Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett). But it is not long before Mary herself dies and Elizabeth, taking her place on the throne, is immediately forced to forge her own way through politically charged marriage proposals, military conflicts, unresolved religious tensions and potential traitors within her own court.
It is not clear at first whether Elizabeth actually wants her new job. She flirts with proposals from the King of Spain (George Yiasoumi) and the Duc dAnjou (Vincent Cassel), the heir to the French throne, but she spends her evenings in bed with her childhood friend Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes). This raises the ire of her chief advisor, Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough), who indignantly declares that her body now belongs to the state and that she must marry a foreigner to bring stability to her nation.
The one advisor who earns Elizabeths confidence is spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush, displaying far more menace here than he did in Les Miserables). The historical Walsingham was a devout Protestant whose religious passion, in the opinion of some of his contemporaries, threatened his otherwise acute political savvy. But the Walsingham of this film is introduced as a murderous pederast for whom God is, at best, a politically useful symbol.
Hindi filmmaker Shekhar Kapur (Bandit Queen), directing his first English-language film, elicits fine performances from most of his cast, but he gets particularly good work out of Blanchett, who invests Elizabeth with a disparate mix of naive vulnerability, tart wit and steadfast resolve, sometimes all within a single scene.
However, Kapur also relies a bit too strongly on the conventions of conspiracy thrillers. Spooky assassin monks lurk in palace shadows, poisoned dresses kill the wrong people, adversaries are seduced and slain in their beds, and the climactic sequence — in which Elizabeths enemies are rounded up and executed while sacred tunes play over the soundtrack — is almost too obvious a homage to The Godfather.
In the end, Elizabeth does surrender her body to her kingdom, but in a way that subverts the integrity of Catholic and Protestant beliefs alike. "All men need something greater than themselves to look up to and worship," Walsingham tells her. "They must be able to touch the divine here on Earth." And so Elizabeth undergoes a sort of symbolic martyrdom, foregoing marriage of any kind and transforming herself into the Virgin Queen, and thereby becoming a secular substitute for the Virgin Mary.
Thus, echoing Jeroboams plan to lure the Israelites away from Judah with his golden calves, Elizabeth retains her control of England and its church while diverting the residual Catholic sentiments of her subjects away from Rome and onto herself. In a world where religious and political authority were hopelessly confused with one another, one can admire Elizabeths self-sacrifice. But it is also somewhat disturbing to think that the faith of the masses could be swayed so easily by these sorts of power games.
— A version of this review was first published in ChristianWeek.