Published November 1, 1998
The thesis of Elizabeth, written by Michael Hirst and directed by Shekhar Kapur, is very simple— like the people that the thesis is ultimately about. These are the credulous peasants of the middle ages who are supposed to have worshiped the Virgin Mary. By the 16th century, the Catholic Church as headed by Sir John Gielgud (it is a perfect postmodern joke to cast him as a sinister Pope sending fanatical priests to England to assassinate the Queen), had become so corrupt that no decent person could be connected with it. Or at least no decent person in this movie is. All the Catholics are ugly or deformed, cruel and ruthless. So what is an enlightened agnostic rationalist, like Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) to do? He can set up a secret police organization, for one thing, fighting fire with fire; he can be as ruthless and cruel as his papist enemies. But what has he got to offer those credulous peasants? Twenty or thirty years ago he would have come up with the answer himself, but feminist orthodoxy means that his puppet, Queen Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchette) must invent herself as the new Blessed Virgin for her people to worship.
Walsingham, it’s true, gives her the hint. “All men need something greater than themselves to look up to and worship,” he tells her. “They must be able to touch the divine here on earth. . .” The climax of the film is therefore her announcement, after a youthful penchant for “fornication” as Lord Burghley (Richard Attenborough) quaintly puts it, that “I have become a virgin!” Naturally this is bad news for her inamorata, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes), who thus aligns himself with the suit of the King of Spain, Philip II. Philip had been married to Liz’s ugly sister, Mary (Kathy Burke), and is himself far from prepossessing in the brief glimpse we catch of him. Elizabeth’s other principal suitor, the Duc d’Anjou, likes attending orgies while dressed in women’s clothes (the best moment in the movie is when Elizabeth catches him at it and he flounces out to greet her, exclaiming petulantly, “What?”) while Dudley himself is a coxcomb and a popinjay and impossible to like. All things considered, the film makes a career as a virgin look pretty attractive.
Elizabeth, like Walsingham, is of no particular faith. To her Catholic interrogators when she is imprisoned in the Tower during Mary’s reign she says: “I ask you why we must tear ourselves apart for this small question of religion. Catholic? Protestant? We all believe in God.”
To which the evil looking Catholic clergyman says: “There is only one true religion. The other: heresy.”
Now we may not know exactly what was said by the future queen and her persecutors on this occasion, but we can be pretty sure that what was not said was that the question of religion was a small one. Certainly, Elizabeth never behaved for a moment as if it were a small one to her, once she came to the throne. As so often before (I get tired of pointing it out), Hollywood remakes the past in the image of the late 20th century—for which religion is a small question—and so cheats its audience out of the experience of something genuinely new and unfamiliar. The audience, of course, having been educated (to use the term loosely) on the same principle, doesn’t know the difference and is left to walk away congratulating itself on its superiority to its ancestors, all of whom apart from a few far-seeing progressives like Elizabeth and Walsingham, behaved so incomprehensibly foolishly.
In fact, the foolishness is all on the side of the filmmakers. A few of the film’s historical howlers and anachronisms follows.
Elizabeth when still a young princess of 16 is depicted frolicking in a meadow with some female attendants and the Studly Dudley but no chaperone, no guard.
On succeeding to the throne, word is received that the treasury is empty, the navy enfeebled, the army disbanded. Elizabeth doesn’t see the problem. “I have no desire to go to war, Sir,” she says. (As Trotsky said when told that the Russian people weren’t interested in war: “No, but war is interested in them.”)
Urged to marry, Elizabeth replies anticipating Gloria Steinem: “I don’t see why a woman need marry at all.”
Giggling ladies-in-waiting outside the Queen’s chamber watch as she hops in bed with Dudley. Burghley says: “Her majesty’s body and person are no longer her own property; they belong to the state.” More giggling and tittering.
The Queen’s adviser Arundell says, regarding the Franco-Scottish threat: “War is a sin, but sometimes a necessary one.”
In addition it is merely vulgar self-indulgence to present a self-conscious echo of The Godfather as all the chief Catholics and conspirators are killed or arrested while Elizabeth is pictured in prayer. But then why should this sequence be any different from the rest of the movie?