Was the queen a real woman?

2008-01-21 00:00

How much of a woman was the Virgin Queen? How vulnerable was she? Underlying the historical drama that director Shekar Kapur and scriptwriter Michael Hirst dealt with in their tale of the young Elizabeth in 1998, and now reprise to tell the story of her at her political prime, are these more human questions that provide both psychological insight and gossip fodder.

Cate Blanchett, now theoretically older than in her earlier role, again plays Elizabeth as England heads inevitably into a war with Spain and faces the threat of invasion by the Armada in 1588. England itself is religiously divided between the Protestants and the Catholics, and the intrigues of court and depleted coffers of state suggest that the country is ripe for the taking.

King Philip of Spain, characterised as a superstitious crackpot in a way that makes the film reek of English nationalist propaganda, thinks so and sets in train events that lead to the beheading of Mary Stuart, the routing of the Armada and the start of the golden age of the title.

How did Elizabeth pull it off? Leading up to the heroic climax, she is shown as a brilliant stateswoman, using her virginity to diplomatic effect by keeping all the major royal houses of Europe peacefully disposed to England with the promise of marriage.

She allows the Catholics enough freedom of religion to hint at the liberal enlightenment to come.

And she’s shrewd and wise enough to get the rich and the powerful onside, both in her court and in affairs of state. But she was also a steely monarch who ordered the death of her cousin Mary and refused to weaken her bargaining position by either getting married or having public affairs. The history books don’t tell of the psychological cost of such resolve, and the script tries hard to fill in the blanks, showing a queen succumbing to temptation, tormented by guilt, given to fits of fainting and tears. It doesn’t quite work, in the same way Cate Blanchett’s Joan of Arc moment astride her steed fails to convince. The most promising hint as to what made Elizabeth tick comes in a throwaway line about her father (Henry VIII) having had her mother (Anne Boleyn) put to death. A wasted chance passed up for the more titillating story of her supposed flirtation with Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen in dashing form).

Part of why Elizabeth didn’t work for me is that the script, in trying to portray human weakness, errs instead by showing her frailty as typically that of a woman, and Blanchett battles to reconcile the imperious, the impetuous and the petulant.

The pace of the film is too slow to start with, and the rout of the Armada too cursory to satisfy either the taste for romance or bloody action. Nevertheless, it’s worth seeing; Cate Blanchett acting even at half revs is a treat.

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