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February 26, 2000


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A right royal mess

Rohit Chopra

Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth Religion. Violence. Family feuds. Royalty. Bloodshed. Gore. The Pope. Treason. Warfare. One demented queen. Poisoned dresses. Fornication. Politics. Exotic dances. Incest. Drag queens. More treason. More intrigue. Hunting. Sexism. The Foreign Hand. Orgies. Dungeons. Lots of religion. Lewd jokes. Torture. Sex. Yet more treason. One demented regent. Murder. Attempted assassinations. Betrayal. Nudity. Melodrama. Excessive make-up...

Guess you want to know what kind of a circus this is, and where on earth is it playing?

Look no further. It's Shekhar Kapur's much talked about and touted Elizabeth, which has finally hit the Indian theatres. The film is supposedly a refreshingly different take on an interesting historical persona and an amazingly febrile era of English and world history. The sad truth, however, is that this heartless mauling of the Renaissance, this clumsy handling of the story of Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, is a run in for the most tedious event of the year. Very, very, very disappointing indeed.

The vagaries of history provide the crazy background to the events of the film. It is the middle of the 16th century (1554, to be precise) and England is rent asunder by strife between Catholics and Protestants. The quarrel is one with a specific legacy: Henry VIII has broken with the Catholic Church and has initiated the Reformation in the early 1530s. In 1534, he creates, by the Act of Supremacy, the Church of England, where his own authority supercedes that of the Pope.

During his son, Edward VI's reign, the Church becomes Protestant. However, his daughter Mary, who marries Philip II of Spain, restores Catholicism and embarks on a witch-hunt of the 'heretic' Protestants. Yet, Mary is childless and will die without an heir, much to the dismay of the scheming coterie that surrounds her and does not ever want to see England in the hands of the Protestants. Out of fear that Elizabeth will become Queen, they succeed in getting her imprisoned.

The film charts Elizabeth's (Cate Blanchett) journey from this incarceration in 1554, on the orders of Mary (Kathy Burke), all the way through the early years of her reign. This is the period when she surmounts innumerable obstacles to emerge as the strong figure of the Virgin Queen.

Joseph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth When Elizabeth gets to hold the reins of power in her hand, things can't be worse than they are. She is at the helm of a country that is broke, has a joke of an army and is under threat from Spain and France. France has her regent, Mary of Guise (Fanny Ardant) firmly planted in Scotland. The Spanish want Elizabeth to wed Philip, their King. While Elizabeth herself loves Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), but her advisor Cecil (Richard Attenborough) presses her to put matters of state above matters of the heart.

The Catholic faction is by no means dormant -- the Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston) is spearheading a conspiracy against her. However, with Elizabeth's ascension, one positive development takes place -- Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) comes back to England from exile. He assists Elizabeth in ruling, in his capacity as Master of Spies and, more importantly, as the voice of wisdom and encouragement.

After this, the plot goes haywire. There are so many turns and twists that one can hardly keep track of the action. There is intrigue and counter-intrigue and counter-counter-intrigue... and so on, ad infinitum, till, of course, all works out well.

But, confusing as it may be, the mind-boggling James Bond-on-speed plot is certainly not a flaw in itself. Neither is the litany of historical inaccuracies that litter the film.

For the record, some of these are: Mary of Guise died of dropsy in real life, and was not murdered (as in the film). It was well-known that Dudley was married -- this was not some great secret as is shown in the film. Scholars of the era are generally agreed that Elizabeth died a virgin, and not a woman who, after a healthy sex life, took up celibacy.

A racy plot, historical liberty and artistic license are surely the prerogative of a director. The problem with this take on the grande dame of Englande lies elsewhere.

The glaring shortcoming is in the treatment of the characters. There is plethora of cinematic cliches (several of the desi variety) that defines the way the main characters are presented, and Kapur is enamoured of these banalities to the point where he cannot resist exploiting them. As a result, the movie, once too often, seems like a poor performance of a poor specimen of Jacobean tragedy.

Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth To begin with, there's the Queen. Elizabeth, before she discovers she has a heart of steel and a stomach of cast iron, is a bit like the bumbling, dim-witted starry eyed heroine of too many Hindi movies. It is true that, historically, Elizabeth was madly in love with Robert Dudley, but we have no reason to believe that she frolicked around at the slightest provocation like a filly shown a stick of sugar. In her later avatar, she reminds one constantly of Margaret Thatcher.

Robert Dudley (later, the Earl of Leicester) is just about okay. His declarations of his undying and unyielding passion for Elizabeth don't convince anyone, including, probably, himself.

The French and Spanish connections lay on the accents too thick and are a shade too mysterious. They remind one of the typical "Mr Jack" foreign hand angle in Hindi cinema, often played so convincingly by Bob Cristo.

And, Walsingham as the super spy and master plotter is straight out of the X-files. Similarly, the Duke of Norfolk is a mean, consistent machine, with a relentless singularity of purpose. The Pope looks alternately like Santa Claus and a creature out of a Bosch painting.

There are moments aplenty which are pure Bollywood and Hollywood, and bad Bollywood and Hollywood at that. Elizabeth and Dudley have a lover's tiff on the dance floor while prancing around in a manner which reminds one of Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones in The Mask Of Zorro. Other low points include Elizabeth looking at a portrait of her father for inspiration; the cloak-and-dagger whisperings of the swarthy Spaniard; the thinly veiled threats of the menacing Frenchman; the Queen's giggly ladies-in-waiting (who have this sakhi saheli air about them); Elizabeth's hair being shorn... the list goes on...

With the surfeit of events, especially towards the latter part of the film, it seems there is very little space for the characters to go beyond the limited roles that are cut out for them. None of the performances are really bad, but not even one has anything of the memorable in it. There are a few scenes that hold one's attention, but, despite the ample spectacle, the dollops of melodrama and the generous gore splattered all over the place, the film completely fails to impress. Of the lot of actors, though, Christopher Eccleston is easily the best. And a word of praise is due for the costumes and sets. Much of the film was shot in a castle in the UK, which lends it, nominally at least, an air of authenticity.

Kapur makes too much of a big deal about Elizabeth not being a virgin. After a point, one feels compelled to ask "Well, if she diddled Dudley, so what!" And, conversely, he does not even venture into any of the other areas he could have explored.

Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth The first of these is Elizabeth's control of her own body and destiny. Her adviser says, at some point, that her body is now the property of the state. This could have been an interesting theme to look at in the context of the film. Connected with this is the issue of Elizabeth's decision to turn celibate. It is generally accepted that this was a move born of necessity, an act of political expediency. In Kapur's film, it is is shown as an impulsive response to the discovery of a truth -- when Elizabeth finds out that Dudley is married, she is heart-broken and, in an act of emotional spring-cleaning, decides to forgo the pleasures of the flesh.

Finally, Kapur also seems to ignore the fact that the Renaissance was an extraordinarily rich period in terms of learning, a time when several great humanist figures of Western civilisation made seminal contributions to practically every area of human experience. Several such figures were associated with Elizabeth's court, so this is another alley that might have been worth wandering into. As it turns out, in the film, practically every character is plotting, scheming, spying, deceiving someone, betraying someone, murdering someone.....

In breve, it seems that Kapur is confused about what kind of a film he wants to make -- neither is this a profoundly political film, nor does it have any historical significance whatsoever. And it certainly makes no contribution to any cinematic tradition. The only thing it proves is that the truth -- or at least Kapur's cinematic version of historical truth -- is stranger than fiction. But whole lot duller, nevertheless.

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