Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998) is an engrossing masterwork of interwoven political intrigues charting the turbulent rise of one of England’s most enigmatic monarchs – Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett). An immense melodrama, epic in scope yet satisfying in its emotional intensity, the screenplay by Michael Hirst takes many historical liberties, not the least of which is transforming loyal subject Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) into the major catalyst for inciting an overthrow of the monarchy.
The film begins in earnest in the year 1558 with the arrival of the Catholic Queen Mary’s (Kathy Burke) guardsmen at the stately Tudor manor of her exiled sister, the Protestant Elizabeth I - child of Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn. Seems the Queen, a hysteric suffering from a cancerous tumour in her uterus, is determined to rid her kingdom of any impediment that may topple her precarious hold on the monarchy.
Public burnings of those suspected of being traitors to the crown are quite common, creating an atmosphere of fear and quiet loathing for the monarchy. However, when Mary realizes she is dying, she has no choice but to release Elizabeth from the Tower of London and instate her to the English throne. The appointment, unfortunately, is not without sacrifice.
Elizabeth has been entertaining romantic dalliances with ambitious statesman, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester; an indulgence that her trusted advisor, Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough) makes valiant attempts to discourage. The court is further rocked by news that The Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston) plans to have Elizabeth murdered so that he may assume appointment to the throne. Enter Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), a noble of spurious sexual proclivities who is loyal to the crown and quite willing to kill anyone who attempts to harm Elizabeth.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, Mary of Guise (Fanny Ardant) is brokering a coup to conquer England for her own with Norfolk's aid and complicity. As England draws nearer to the precipice of royal disaster Elizabeth must harden her resolve and her heart against any outside influences that may or may not have her best interests at heart.
The palace intrigues condensed in Hirst's screenplay tend to pile up midway through this lavish spectacle – an otherwise evenly paced potpourri of macabre alliances, faltering ambitions and maniacal desires to take over England's throne from within. Interestingly, the film tends to age the entire cast to middle age and beyond even though many of the principles in life, like Walsingham and William Cecil, were actually in their twenties when Elizabeth began her reign.
Also, the Norfolk of history was hardly an all powerful demigod intent on destroying Elizabeth, but rather an easily manipulated pawn who first attempted to wed Mary of Guise in 1569. Finally, Elizabeth did not cut her red hair to become the Virgin Queen as depicted in the film, but rather wore a wig later in life to disguise her thinning tresses from a bout of smallpox.
Historical inaccuracies set aside, there is much to admire in Elizabeth. The entire cast is superb – particularly Blanchette. This is the film that made her an international star. Geoffrey Rush and Richard Attenborough add pedigree to the cast, as does Christopher Eccleston. Hirst's imaginative narrative occasionally falters, but the cast is so good at carrying on that the general lapses tend to vanish under the exceptional craftsmanship of the exercise.
Originally released under the PolyGram label on DVD, the Blu-Ray offering from Universal Home Entertainment is quite stunning. exhibits quite a stunning. Colors are bold and fully saturated. Contrast levels that were slightly weaker than expected on the DVD seem to have been brought into check on the Blu-Ray with fine details evident even during dark scenes. We get a very minor hint of edge enhancement scattered briefly throughout but nothing that will distract. The audio is lossless and quite aggressive, although on occasion whispered dialogue is inaudible. Extras are direct imports from Polygram's DVD and include The Making of Elizabeth, an audio commentary and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)