Was Queen Elizabeth The First Spice Girl?
By Stacey Richter
THE 20TH CENTURY has a right to be on film because it's been recorded on film all along, but times of yore weren't even photographed. Period movies constantly must prove why folks today should care about historical stuff--a high schooler writing a book report might say how it relates to our society today. There's a pull towards the highbrow in historical drama, as though people in costumes are inherently classy and olden times were automatically meaningful--they must be if we still care about them! At the same time there's a competing urge towards the sybaritic--naked frolicking, opulent clothing and huge banquets--as if to bind us in kinship with lords and ladies through appetite. It's a sort of filmic identity crisis, and not surprisingly, period movies suffer the same questions of existence adolescents suffer: Why am I here? Who will have sex with me? What should I wear?
The answer from Shekhar Kapur, the director of Elizabeth, is that we should care about Elizabethan times because Queen Elizabeth was a kick-ass feminist, a wild, independent soul who lived in a castle as dark and iron-studded as a set on Xena: Warrior Princess. According to Kapur and screenwriter Michael Hirst, Queen Elizabeth I was kind of a rock star--Tudor Spice. She was a hot, rebellious Protestant straining against the Catholic yoke of the British monarchy; an imprisoned, illegitimate waif who burst from her chains to rule England with a combination of womanly charm and steely authority while wearing really hot clothes and "consorting" with whomever she pleased.
It's all a bit ridiculous--sensational and slow-moving at the same time--but like adolescence, it's kind of fun to watch if you don't have to actually live through it. The first half-hour of Elizabeth is particularly campy, with overwrought, Ken Russell-style shots of doomed Protestants being burned at the stake. Elizabeth's predecessor, Queen Mary (Kathy Burke), comes off as an ugly, simple-minded Catholic (Catholics don't fare well in this flick) dying from a tumor she stupidly believes is a pregnancy. She shuffles around her dimly lit castle like the bad queen in a fairy tale while various lackeys sniff her body fluids. The Princess, meanwhile, has been spending her days in the country dancing around a Maypole before being summoned to the Dark Court, where the Queen tries to get her to promise to worship as a Catholic if she were to take the throne.
Elizabeth waffles on this question--historically, she bent to pressures from the Church early in her reign, reestablishing Anglicanism later. The film is oddly vague on history, while at the same time it tries to cram in a lot of detail. One fact that's not in dispute is that England was in sorry shape when she took the throne in 1558--hugely in debt and a failure in war. By the time Elizabeth died, England had gone through one of its greatest eras, lit by great luminaries including William Shakespeare. Elizabeth isn't about the peace and stability that allowed this flowering of culture though; it's about the cut-throat intrigue of the court.
And what a court! Apparently England in the 16th century was ruled by a vampiric cult. Almost all the scenes occur at night, in stone castles lit by feeble candles. These dark halls are peopled by beautiful courtiers dressed in sumptuous threads. What a shame they're always being stabbed, beheaded or poisoned. The young Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) maneuvers her way through such sticky intrigue with the help of her loyal advisor Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), a Machiavellian lurker who gives mysterious pointers on ruling. But this isn't just a political tale, it's a love story too. It seems they call Elizabeth "The Virgin Queen" because she didn't marry, but it would be shocking to have a period film without sex, and besides, the Queen had favorites. Though she romps in her bedchamber with Lord Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) while her handmaidens look on (royalty gets no privacy), he betrays her, and the film implies that she has made a vow to stay chaste.
The moral is that political power comes at the price of love, for a woman at least, and that's a pretty creepy moral. The real Elizabeth had a series of boyfriends and used her unmarried status as a diplomatic tool. Kapur doesn't want to get into this--Elizabeth is the Virgin Queen in this movie, a sort of Protestant icon, heavily painted, bewigged, and stripped of her feminine charms by the time the party is over--on second thought, call her Virgin Spice. It's a heavy message for such a light story, and it's hard not to find the whole thing a bit tiresome.
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