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Puts the "dire" into "dialogue".
on 17 June 2005
This is a bizarre film. Almost all of it, barring a scene at Leeds Castle, another at (I'm guessing) Bamburgh and the now-notorious "Battle of Leith", is filmed in York Minster. That makes the set a lot more solid than is usual for a film and infinitely more beautiful, but ecclesiastical surroundings don't always look appropriate, however cunningly used. There is something rather Kafkaesque about the feeling that the entire country inhabits a single building, where the Spanish Ambassador schemes in one alcove and Sir Francis Walsingham in several others.
Films have always been cavalier with historical fact (leading to the laughable complaint by Hollywood directors that the film "Cold Mountain", with a British director, was inaccurate - it wasn't the inaccuracy that was the problem per se, but the fact that it was perpetrated by a Briton). "Elizabeth" takes inaccuracy to new levels, however. In reality, she reigned from 1558 to 1603, longer than an English monarch since Edward III. In the film, the action is telescoped into the years following 1558. Most of the events described, however, where they happened at all, occurred around the early 1570s. This makes a difference: Elizabeth was marriageable in 1558, at twenty-five, but was highly unlikely to produce an heir by the 1570s. Typically, the film gets confused by the "Duke of Anjou", with whom the queen was briefly connected. "Anjou" was a royal title in Valois France, so it was held by the third son of Henri II and Catherine de Medici, who later became King Henri III. When he did so, his younger brother assumed the title of "Duke of Anjou". It is the younger Anjou that the film should have portrayed, but the older (in a cartoon-like form), who actually appears. This inaccuracy is far from atypical. It is said that the film was quite influential in certain quarters in Scotland, where there was enjoyment to be had from the spectacle of a spectacular English defeat outside Leith. This battle never took place, in reality. Contrary to what the film shows, Marie de Guise, widow of James V, wasn't murdered, either. Considering how extensively loathed she was in Scotland, that's pretty surprising, but it's a fact, nonetheless. Minor errors of fact are forgivable, but, in this case, the writers seem to have made an all-out attempt to get everything wrong. It's not even original. The film clearly apes "The Godfather" in its last section and "La Reine Margot" in some earlier scenes. Elizabeth's coronation seems lifted from "La Reine Margot", but a scene where a lady-in-waiting is poisoned by a dress is blatantly copied. Since "La Reine Margot" was quite a long way short of being a cinematic masterpiece, this doesn't say much for "Elizabeth". The worst aspect of all about "Elizabeth", though, is the dialogue, which is hopeless. Only two actors, the Australian members of the cast, get to speak in paragraphs, as opposed to very short sentences. I have no problems with either actor. Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth) and Geoffrey Rush (Walsingham) may very well be able to claim more English ancestors from the period than I can and they are both excellent actors, but even they get barely any chance to excel here. Pity, then, someone of the quality of Christopher Ecclestone, trying to flesh out the character of the Duke of Norfolk in lines that verge on the monosyllabic. I have less sympathy for Richard Attenborough, who has been on autopilot, in acting terms, since about 1960; here, he plays Cecil, the most important man in England for most of Elizabeth's reign, as a doddering, old idiot. Cecil was about a dozen years older than the queen, in reality. Joseph Fiennes stands no chance as the Earl of Leicester. Quite what Elizabeth saw in Leicester is not entirely clear. Even if he was a handsome devil in 1558, he probably wasn't by 1588, when the queen appointed him to command the land forces to oppose the Armada. Luckily for us, his services were not called upon. Probably, the crucial link in real life was the fact that Elizabeth and he narrowly escaped the executioner's block for their associations with Lady Jane Grey (the obvious fact that Elizabeth had nothing to gain from sponsoring the tragic Lady Jane didn't prevent her from being treated as a potential or actual traitress under Mary I). In the film, Joseph Fiennes, another fine actor wasted, is left to lisp fatuous lines and then shown to take part in a conspiracy against the monarch, in league with the King of Spain (a somewhat unlikely predicament for a Protestant as fervent as Leicester was). It may be objected that I am being pedantic, but religion was what the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (eighteenth, too, to a significant extent) were about in Western Europe and, in some senses,the Americas. For most of the film, the Protestant-versus-Catholic aspect is the one thing that is more or less right, so turning Leicester into a closet Catholic is ludicrous. Oh - and the scriptwriter needs to look up the difference between "precipitous" and "precipitate".