Partially reinventing the period movie, stylistically at least, almost as radically as Martin Scorsese reinvented the Biblical epic with his Last Temptation, Shekhur Kapur's account of the insecure early days of Elizabeth I's reign, Elizabeth, is a claustrophobic film set in a dark world of cold grey stone, alternating overhead shots with tight medium shots rather than stressing spectacle or glamour, more political thriller than costume epic. Indeed, with its bloody finale clearly inspired by The Godfather as Walsingham takes care of business for his Capo di tutti Capo, it's almost a mafia movie, with Cate Blanchett's star-making turn as Elizabeth filling in the Michael Corleone role as the heir apparent who must ruthlessly shed emotions and conscience to hold on to the throne. That journey from fresh-faced youth to impregnable white-faced icon gives the film a solid emotional arc that helps prevent it from becoming a simple series of confrontations and thwarted conspiracies, almost - but not quite - turning it into a tragedy of success rather than the usual tragedy of failure that is usually the lot of women in historical pictures (Anne of the Thousand Days, Mary Queen of Scots, Lady Jane, La Reine Margot, etc).
It's handsomely cast: Joseph Fiennes gives good shallow romanticism as Elizabeth's lover Dudley, Christopher Eccleston in his default misery guts mode makes a fine villain and there's a healthy cast that, if not bursting with A-listers, is at least filled with familiar faces, from Richard Attenborough, Fanny Ardant, Daniel Craig and Vincent Cassel in a dress to Edward Hardwicke, Kelly McDonald, James Frain, Emily Mortimer and Eric Cantona. Yet perhaps even more than Blanchett it's a magnificent Geoffrey Rush who often dominates the film from the sidelines as the Queen's loyal and utterly unscrupulous spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, a man who can seem all things to all men and women but is loyal only to her. Even when he's simply observing from afar he's a powerful presence in all the right ways, emanating a callous intelligence that is truly frightening.
It's strange that the sequel has been attacked by the Vatican as anti-Catholic when this first chapter probably occupies a high place on Ian Paisley's Ten Best List, what with Kathy Burke's psychotic "Bloody" Mary burning Protestants and threatening to do the same to her half-sister and John Gielgud's Pope (earning fifth billing for barely two minutes' screen time) despatching Daniel Craig's priest to assassinate the Protestant queen not merely with his blessing but his promises of a welcome in heaven for any who help in the task. Not entirely inaccurate considering the many attempts by Catholic kingdoms like France and Spain to topple or assassinate Elizabeth during her reign, but a little more historical context might have been helpful for viewers not so familiar with Tudor politics and the causes and effects of the Reformation. It doesn't help that Michael Hirst's screenplay refers to Marie de Guise (Ardant) as Mary, Queen of Scots, leading some to assume she's THE famous Mary, Queen of Scots rather than her mother, but then the problem of just how much historical information you can include before it gets in the way of the drama is always a difficult one in a period film: too little and you don't know what's happening, too much and you feel like you should be taking notes in case there's a test later. Instead, this is content to follow Elizabeth's rise at the expense not just of her enemies but also some of her early friendships, keeping it personal even as Elizabeth has to shed her own personality to create an icon a divided nation can follow. It's certainly not flawless, but it's never dull and often impressive.
Long only available in a rather disappointing UK edition, this 'Golden' edition more or less upgrades the extras to include those on the original US disc - audio commentary, longer making of featurette and a lengthy promo for Elizabeth: The Golden Age.