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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Elizabeth from princess to icon: One mistress and no master., 2 Nov. 2008
This review is from: Elizabeth : Special Edition [1998] [DVD] (DVD)
Among Great Britain's monarchs, two queens stand out in particular: Elizabeth I. and Queen Victoria. Both came to power at extremely young ages, and at times of political instability which would have set the odds of survival against any new ruler, but particularly so, against a woman. Both beat those odds in ways few people would have foreseen: They not only persevered but ruled for a nearly unparalleled long time, and during their reign achieved to both strengthen England's economy and international stance and give new direction to its society. We have long come to identify their reign as "the Victorian Age" and "the Elizabethan Age," respectively. Yet, while "Victorian England" is an expression often used synonymously with moral conservativism, Elizabeth I. fostered not only the development of science but also the theater and arts; providing fertile ground for the works of Shakespeare, Marlowe and many others. (Influenced by her husband, Queen Victoria supported the exploration of new scientific developments, but the dominant force of her formative years as a ruler was conservative prime minister Lord Melbourne, who once advised her not to read Dickens because his books were "full of unpleasant subjects.") And while Queen Victoria derived strength from her long, stable marriage to German-born Prince Albert, Elizabeth I. resisted the pressure to marry at all and became known as "the Virgin Queen."

Looking back at Elizabeth's reign, we see less a woman than an icon; the symbol of what her rule has come to stand for. Shekhar Kapur's 1998 movie explores, as the director explains in the DVD's "Making of" feature, the making of that icon; the formative processes, influences and personalities surrounding the young princess's ascent to the throne and her first years in power -- and of course, at the center of it all, Elizabeth herself, magnificently portrayed by Cate Blanchett (who should have won the Academy Award for her performance). The princess, as this movie sees her, certainly knew her insecurities about her role in life and in English politics, her people's expectations, and the intrigues of her own court. But she was also, as Kapur has her affirm to her protector and spymaster Walsingham, "[her] father's daughter" -- the proud, headstrong daughter of Henry VIII., who quickly learned from her mistakes and assumed true leadership early on. Having inherited a country deeply torn in religious conflict, and having barely survived the machinations of the court of her Catholic half sister and predecessor, "Bloody" Mary I., to find her, the "heretic," guilty of treason and execute her, one of Elizabeth's first acts in power was to have parliament pass the Act of Uniformity, reestablishing the Church of England formed by her father. And while she respected her Secretary of State Sir William Cecil, she eventually came to realize that his advice was overly guided by the hope that she marry and produce an heir to secure her kingdom, and she reluctantly retired him into his status as Lord Burghley.

Indeed, there was not one single man who dominated Elizabeth's life but several, and Kapur was able to secure an extraordinary cast to surround then-newcomer Blanchett. Richard Attenborough plays Sir William Cecil with a humility and quiet dignity that few besides him could have brought to the screen. Christopher Eccleston bristles as the powerful, ambitious Catholic Duke of Norfolk, that key player from the inner circle of Mary's court who retained his position after her death and became the one member of Elizabeth's council most dangerous to her reign. Joseph Fiennes reprises his role as a burning-eyed, handsome lover from the almost simultaneously released "Shakespeare in Love" (which, while a splendid movie in its own rights, eclipsed much of the limelight that "Elizabeth" would so richly have deserved), playing the man most closely romantically linked to Elizabeth, "Sweet" Lord Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, whose love for her -- at least, as this movie would have it -- is ultimately his own undoing. "You're still my Elizabeth," the erstwhile princess's lover insists at a ball some time after her coronation. "I am no man's Elizabeth," the queen retorts, and affirms for all the court to hear: "I will have one mistress here, and no master!"

Most impressive of all the queen's men is Geoffrey Rush's portrayal as her protector, secret advisor and supreme spymaster Francis Walsingham, the creator of what much later became Britain's MI-5, whose role Rush approached, inspired by the description Kapur had given him, much like the Hindu god Krishna, as "a very wise man who can kill people ... while smiling," as he explains in the DVD's "Making of" featurette -- an ability which his young, unfaithful companion in exile learns to know as much as powerful Marie de Guise (Fanny Ardant), aunt to Elizabeth's would-be suitor Henri d'Anjou and mother of her later rival Mary of Scots; who had refused Henry VIII.'s suit remarking "I may be big in person, but my neck is small," only to find herself terminally surrendering to Walsingham's unmatched cunning.

Key to any great historical movie is the authenticity of its production design, and "Elizabeth" overflows with the rich and luxurious colors of the queen's renaissance court and its balls, gowns and pageants. But there are also the vast, high stone halls of the palace and the royal cathedral, symbolizing the perpetuity of the monarchy reestablished by Elizabeth I. At last, when contemplating a statute of the Virgin Mary, Elizabeth wonders whether, to perpetuate her reign, she must be "made of stone;" and it is again Walsingham who answers: "Aye, Madam, to reign supreme, [because] all men ... must be able to touch the divine here on earth" and as yet, "they have found nothing to replace [Mary]." And so, this movie tells us, the icon we all know was created - and like a nun married to God, a dehumanized Elizabeth reenters her council and holds out her hand to her old Secretary of State: "Observe, Lord Burghley: I am married to England!"
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