Queen Elizabeth, Film Star

by Jeff Siegel

Hollywood loves Queen Elizabeth. The current release, (Elizabeth: The Golden Age) starring Cate Blanchett, is far from the first – Thomas Edison produced an 1895 short called The Execution of Mary Stuart (which, though it doesn't include Elizabeth, wouldn't have been possible without her.)

The character has attracted a variety of actresses and directors – Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), directed by Michael Curtiz; Jean Simmons in Young Bess (1953); Flora Robson in Fire Over England (1937); Judi Dench, who almost steals the show, in Shakespeare in Love (1998); and even Sarah Bernhardt in a 1912 silent production called Queen Elizabeth. Interest has greatly increased recently: the Helen Mirren HBO effort (2006), a PBS mini-series (2005), and a forthcoming Mary, Queen of Scots with Scarlett Johansson as Mary and a yet uncast Elizabeth.

And this roster does not include Glenda Jackson, the most Elizabeth of all in Elizabeth R, a 1971 BBC series, and Mary Queen of Scots, a 1972 film in which Jackson played Elizabeth to Vanessa Redgrave's Mary Stuart.

So why has Hollywood loved Elizabeth so much? Some of it, of course, is the cinematic arc of her life. Her mother was beheaded and she was imprisoned in the Tower of London and almost beheaded. Her reign included a major European war and religious strife, the Spanish Armada, Shakespeare, and the first British colonies in the New World. She was the first woman to rule in her own name in English history, which was a pretty big deal for the 16th century.

Some of it is how the movie industry works. Warner Brothers was famous for its swashbucklers in the 1930s and 1940s, and it could only make so many pirate pictures. So why not team Davis and Errol Flynn in Elizabeth and Essex, or Robson and Flynn in The Sea Hawk (where, frankly, Elizabeth doesn't have much to do)?

And some of it, starting with Elizabeth R, is strictly political. Jackson's queen pulls no punches – the boys around the council table want her to settle down and breed heirs to the throne, and she is having none of it. They want to invade here and pillage there, and she points out that war makes very little political and economic sense. She is even willing to marry her lover off to cement a Scottish alliance, which astounds the lover and many of her advisors. This approach is not only a reasonable historic interpretation, but it's completely understandable given the climate of the early 1970s.

It's less clear what director Shekhar Kapur is doing with Golden Age and its predecessor, Elizabeth (1998). The films have two distinct, mostly contradictory, views. In Elizabeth, Blanchett is a victim of circumstance, completely unprepared to rule and not especially happy about it. She is almost totally dependent on Geoffery Rush's Walsingham – think Dick Cheney with the rack in one hand and thumbscrews in the other. In Elizabeth, there is little doubt that the queen is not a virgin, courtesy of Joseph Fiennes' Dudley.

In Golden Age, on the other hand, Walsingham is dying and not especially efficient. The men in Elizabeth's government seem incapable of defeating Spain and the Armada; only the queen's strong hand saves the day. And her relationship with Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen, in a truly thankless role) is as asexual as her turn with Dudley is not.

Is Kapur, a Pakistani, scoring a few points against the old colonial bosses by showing Elizabeth as a pre-modern Bridget Jones in the first film? And, if so, where does Golden Age fit, given that Elizabeth is a powerful, complex individual who has made choices and understands what she lost when she made those choices? And, to further confuse the issue, in Golden Age, Kapur has seemingly lifted scenes from Elizabeth R (the Tilbury speech and Walsingham's deathbed). Are those scenes a bridge from Kapur's early queen to the commanding woman of Elizabeth R, a film that never once forgets that Elizabeth said: "I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a King of England, too."

No doubt Kapur is exercising director's privilege, perhaps changing his approach from the revisionist Elizabeth to the more traditional view in Golden Age. It will be interesting to see what he does for a third film, taking the queen through the rest of her life. Historians agree that Elizabeth held on to life and power until her last literal breath. Will Kapur agree?

(Promotional photo for Elizabeth: The Golden Age from Universal Pictures. To see a trailer for Elizabeth: The Golden Age, please check below.)

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