ELIZABETH: Blu-Ray (Polygram/USA Films 1998) Universal Home Video
History vs. art – and never has the twain yet met to thoroughly satisfy academic scholarship, though especially in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998), an engrossing fiction of interwoven political intrigues, charting the supposed turbulent rise of one of England’s most enigmatic monarchs – Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett). Almost from the moment it hit theater screens, Elizabeth was mercilessly savaged by historians, chastising its artistic liberties and its fast and loose distortion of the narrative timeline in actual events. Indeed, Michael Hirst’s screenplay is a bit of a higglety-pigglety hodge-podge – Hirst, cherry-picking his points of interest, and reinventing the Queen’s early years to suit his own artistic temperament. Worse – at least for some – Blanchett’s sovereign appears to suffer from a deplorable lack of trajectory, this Elizabeth’s indecisiveness and moral ambiguity, starkly contradicted by history’s account of the potent, resolute and shrewd monarch, who maneuvered her way through the political quagmire of perilous palace intrigues. There is something to this, of course, as Blanchett’s ‘Liz’ remains rather dependent on her principle secretary, Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), and generally conflicted in her passion for Joseph Fiennes’ Robert Dudley, the 1st Earl of Leicester who, so this movie foretells, aspired to be the man behind the throne. Actually, this too is a false statement, as Dudley had no part in the conspiracy against Elizabeth, though vanity likely encouraged his own interests to toddle along.
Right from the outset, Kapur muddies the truth – opening with the public incineration of three unknown heretics and Queen Mary’s (Kathy Burke) false pregnancy, so suggested as the first signs of a malignant tumor eating away at her sanity and to result in her eventual death. In fact, Mary suffered from no such growth and died four years after Elizabeth had already been imprisoned in the Tower of London. It is one thing to mark actual events from history in a condensed format to benefit the obvious limitations of the motion picture (biographical movies are incapable of telling the whole story – ever), but Kapur’s mangle does not even get the basics right. Liz was under house arrest at Woodstock – not Hatfield, as example. And her summons to Hampton Court was for Mary’s supposed delivery – which, of course did not happen, though Liz would remain in the Queen’s service until Mary’s husband, Philip II of Spain went abroad. In life, Robert Dudley was neither exiled from Elizabeth’s court, nor her heart, remaining a close confident – and quite possibly more – until his death in 1588; long after the ‘official’ account of their romance had cooled. Again, for concision of time, we can almost forgive Kapur’s fudging of another fact: Elizabeth knew Dudley was married to Amy Robsart, the latter living obscurely in the country and slowly dying of breast cancer in 1560 – two years into the Queen’s reign. However, what are we to make of Kapur’s outright lie about the fate of Mary of Guise (Fanny Ardant), another plotter, but one who was not assassinated by Walsingham as depicted in this movie. Rather, she succumbed to edema later this same year? And then, there is the decision to hire 75-yr.-old Richard Attenborough to play William Cecil, not yet the 1st Baron of Burghley (as he is presented herein) – and not such a terrible casting choice either, until one realizes the real Cecil was 38-yrs. Attenborough’s junior and barely 13-yrs. older than the real Queen! In Elizabeth, we are meant to infer the Queen felt it necessary for Cecil to retire – presumably infirmed with age, when, in fact, he remained her Chief Advisor and Lord High Treasurer from 1572 until his death in 1598.
And, although it was first conceived Elizabeth should enter into a marriage of state with Henry, Duke of Anjou (rechristened in this movie as Francis, and played for a transvestite by Vincent Cassel – never mind, the real Henry showed no such proclivity, and, was, in fact, Henry II’s heir, not Queen Mary’s nephew!) the real Elizabeth, 37 at the time, never actually met this boy (Henry was barely 19), fruitlessly peddled to become her husband some 12-yrs. into her reign, not at the outset, and, as a means to control her from the inside, as depicted in this movie. It was, in fact, Henry’s sibling, Francis, who aggressively pursued Elizabeth when she was already 45 and he, just turned 23. Finally, the end of Elizabeth depicts the re-virgin-ization of the Queen through an arduous deconstruction of her womanly charms; she, presumably, having surrendered her earthly desires to rule over England. In actuality, Elizabeth maintained a healthy Rolodex of potential suitors well into her middle-age, to have included her ex-brother-in-law, Philip II of Spain, Archduke Charles of Austria, Eric XIV of Sweden, Adolphus, Duke of Holstein, and the Valois princes, Francis and Henry (a.k.a. King Henry III of France and Poland). Now, having established Elizabeth as a movie bearing little earthly resemblance to the historical record, it seems prudent – even necessary – to concede that it is nevertheless an immense melodrama, epic in scope, and even satisfying in its emotional intensity, despite the many historical liberties taken along the way.
Our story begins in earnest in the year 1558 with the arrival of the Catholic Queen Mary’s guardsmen at the stately Tudor manor of her exiled sister, the Protestant Elizabeth I - child of Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn. According Hirst’s revision, this Mary is a hysteric, suffering from a cancerous tumor in her uterus. Nevertheless, she is determined to rid her kingdom of any and all impediments that may topple her precarious toe-hold on the monarchy. Public burnings of those suspected of being heretics and traitors to the crown are quite common, creating an atmosphere of fear and dissension. 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. This appointment is not without its sacrifices. Elizabeth has been entertaining romantic dalliances with ambitious statesman, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester; an indulgence her trusted advisor, Sir William Cecil 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 he may assume his appointment to the throne. Enter Sir Francis Walsingham, a noble of spurious sexual proclivities, relentlessly loyal to the crown; the Queen’s private assassin.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, Mary of Guise 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 who 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 machinations to take over England's throne from within. Presumably, to lend ballast to his fiction, Hirst has considerably aged many of the principles from life, Walsingham and William Cecil, actually in their twenties when Elizabeth began her reign. Also, the Norfolk of history was hardly an all-powerful demigod intent on destroying Elizabeth. In truth, he remained something of a rather easily manipulated pawn who first attempted to wed Mary of Guise in 1569. Finally, Elizabeth did not cleave her strawberry blonde tresses to ‘become’ the Virgin Queen. Rather, she wore a wig later in life, a disguise for her own thinning tresses devastated by a bout of smallpox. Historical inaccuracies aside, there is much to admire in Elizabeth. The entire cast is superb – particularly Blanchett. Indeed, this movie made her an international star. Geoffrey Rush and Richard Attenborough add their pedigree to the cast, as does Christopher Eccleston. Hirst's imaginative rewrite betrays history. But the cast is solid, and the production values afforded the picture by John Myhre, with art direction by Jonathan Lee and Lucy Richardson, with set decorations from Peter Howitt, and exquisite costuming from Alexandra Byrne go an awfully long way to impress and lull us into enjoying the movie for what it is – a fanciful revisionist theory in which the merits of history itself is outweighed by the dramatic intensity of the picture’s entertainment value.
Originally released under the PolyGram label on DVD, the Blu-Ray is from Universal Home Entertainment, and, appears to be derived from digital files used in the HD DVD release from 2007. As such, the image here is not exactly up to Blu-ray’s high-def standards. Colors remain lush and lovely, bright, bold and vivid. Alas, contrast fluctuates throughout, with night sequences appearing especially anemic and lacking in visual depth. Black levels fall miserably short during the many dimly-lit interior scenes. Close-ups reveal a stunning amount of minute detail, though establishing shots do not compliment this integrity. Details are mostly average, though still a significant improvement over the old DVD release. The DTS 5.1 audio is excellent for this primarily dialogue-driven movie, with few affecting moments of spatial spread: prioritized and precise. Extras are limited to what was on the old DVD release: an audio commentary from Kapur, more interested in discussing the technical aspects of the picture than its historical miscalculations; a nearly half-hour ‘making of’, the original 6-min. junket used to promote the movie and an original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: while Elizabeth – the movie, remains an anathema to history buffs, for the rest of us it provides the necessary high-stakes drama to impress as pure entertainment. The Blu-ray is a tad underwhelming, but mostly adequate and will surely not disappoint the casual viewer. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)