- Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I
- Geoffrey Rush as Francis Walsingham
- Joseph Fiennes as Robert Dudley
- Richard Attenborough as William Cecil
- Christopher Eccleston as Duke of Norfolk
- Fanny Ardant as Mary of Guise
- John Gielgud as the Pope
The early years of Elizabeth I’s reign are given a splendid retelling by talented director Shekhar Kapur. Avoiding conventions of historical dramas, he gives the tale a dark and brutal edge as we watch the young queen fight off conspiracy and become a strong monarch. Boasting a superb performance by Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth is nothing short of enthralling from beginning to end.
In 1558, the catholic Mary I is dying of a cancerous tumour. Childless, the next in line to the throne is her half-sister Elizabeth, who is a protestant. It is a time of unrest as the seesaw of religion swings back and forth precariously. When Mary dies, Elizabeth becomes queen. The young girl is spirited and often naive and the position she has inherited is not exactly ideal. She is pressured to marry as soon as possible and produce an heir. Elizabeth though is more interested in her love affair with the dashing Robert Dudley. Meanwhile, England is threatened from abroad by Mary of Guise, who has gathered troops in Scotland. As well as the threat from abroad, there is conspiracy within her court as various members plot ways to dethrone her, the most prominent being the Duke of Norfolk who considers her a heretic. The thorny issue of religion also rears its head and threatens to destroy her reign as violence and chaos erupts. Realising the threats that surround her and aided by loyal but calculating Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth nimbly begins to transform from romantic young woman to ruthless and wilful queen in order to rule over this time of uncertainty and become the iconic Virgin Queen that the world knows. Politics, romance and bloodshed all combine in this splendid biopic that breathes fresh life into the story and gives it a riveting makeover.
While many historical biopics paint a quaint picture of monarchy, Elizabeth delivers another side. The court of Elizabeth is a place of political intrigue and dark deeds, where views are divided by beliefs and violence is often around the corner. From the start, Elizabeth is in danger and must face the plots that threaten to engulf her. Shekhar Kapur magnificently captures the conspiracy and unrest of the time with his use of colour and camerawork, with dark red symbolising both passion and blood and a roaming camera that stalks the eerie palace and gives it a sepulchral tone. Interestingly, Kapur seems to take an influence from the most unlikely source, The Godfather. The similarities can be seen with the main characters in each, that must after reluctance change themselves and sacrifice personal attachments to become a feared ruler in order to survive and uphold dynastic order. Also, the lush cinematography that accompanies many scenes of assassinations does resemble some of the bloodshed of The Godfather. The musical score is suitably filled with royal splendor and underlying menace, while the sumptuous costume design is breathtaking. Historians may balk at some of the more fanciful elements of Elizabeth, but a few liberties here and there gives the film an exciting edge.
In the leading role of Elizabeth, Cate Blanchett is a revelation. Her expressive face displays the journey she goes on and the strength that she uses to become a ruthless and powerful leader, capable of making difficult decisions. Filling the role with passion, emotion and vigour, Blanchett is a marvel. Ably supporting her is Geoffrey Rush as her advisor Francis Walsingham, who will do anything to protect her, including murder. Joseph Fiennes makes for a suitably handsome romantic interest, while Richard Attenborough is great as an elderly counsellor who attempts to guide the young girl. The other roles are competently portrayed by Christopher Eccleston, who exudes menace and anger as the conspiring Duke, Fanny Ardant as the ambitious Mary of Guise and John Gielgud as the Pope.
Not one for the purists, Elizabeth still succeeds thanks to visually stunning direction, a powerful lead performance and a tense atmosphere that gives history new life.