“Forgive me, Madam, but you are only a woman…”
The mid to late 90s was a very specific time in my movie watching history. In my teens, I was obliged to think Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino were gods. And anything that seemed like it was made for mainstream audiences or awards success, was probably cooky cutter, prestige bullshit. And when I was 17 or 18 years old, nothing looked more like cooky cutter, prestige bullshit than a period biopic about British aristocracy. Now that I’m a little older, a period biopic about British aristocracy seems nothing less than fascinating. Which is why I finally watched Elizabeth.
It’s the mid 16th century, and Henry VIII’s daughter Mary (Kathy Burke) is the catholic Queen of England. Worried that her protestant half sister Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) might have designs in the thrown, Mary has Elizabeth thrown in the clink. But it turns out that Mary’s biggest problem isn’t an ambitious sibling, it’s a cancerous tumour. So once that gets the better of her, Elizabeth gets to wear the crown anyway.
Under the guidance of Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough), Elizabeth starts looking for a suitable husband. But really, she’s shaboinking the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) on the side. On top of the hassle of trying to find a boyfriend, Elizabeth also has to contend with a possible war with Scotland and France, and descent from within, in the form of the Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccelston)
As a history lesson, Elizabeth is an efficient, well told, easily digestible story. As a movie, it’s an amazing looking piece of visual art that could be enjoyed even if there was no story to justify its existence. As much as film is a visual medium, I rarely think even the most stunning visuals can compensate for a lack of compelling story. But the period of time depicted, and the amount of actual locations from that period still standing in England, mean that the look is more than enough reason to see this movie.
So when you add to that the cavalcade of awesome performances, they’re just an added bonus. In my memory, Elizabeth was Cate Blanchett’s big breakout. The movie that took her from respected Aussie actress, to Oscar nominated movie star. And without the help of its original release and almost 20 years hindsight, her performance still totally holds up as warranting that jump in recognition and fame.
Also, remember when Joseph Fiennes was a thing?