Revisiting Elizabeth, I am reminded of why Cate Blanchett’s fans are both rabid and justified in their love of this woman.
A formidable performer, Blanchett often finds her way into curious films with little to do (Bandits?). She also seems to have a gift for being the brightest light in any otherwise dull film (Veronica Guerin?). Her Oscar last year, on her second nomination for The Aviator, didn’t exactly come as a shock as she is seemingly beloved by her peers in the industry. And she was, after all, playing Katharine Hepburn in a Martin Scorsese film (And let’s face it: The Academy would have probably done anything to give Hepburn that final “fifth” Oscar).
What amounted to essentially a cameo in The Talented Mr, Ripley, in a role written specifically for her, added to her mystique while even in small gems like The Man Who Cried she managed to make her presence known despite little fanfare. In fact, the actress has pretty much made a career out of her presence, mystique and of course, her technical prowess all allowing her to fit easily into the skins of some of the world’s most prickly, unusual women.
After a bright leading role debut in Oscar And Lucinda, the Australian actress was given a gift most female performers throughout the history of cinema have relished: the privilege of playing Queen Elizabeth I. In an unprecedented move the exact same year, Judi Dench played the older, wisecracking Elizabeth in Shakespeare In Love, for which she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Glenda Jackson, Jean Simmons and Bette Davis all set a royal standard before her, while Helen Mirren put her stamp on the role this past year. But it was the unlikely Blanchett that gave her Queen Bess an inner light that had been missing from the other women’s characterizations. If any of these various Elizabeths truly deserved to win awards, it was Blanchett’s powerful, willful monarch.
While the film may rely heavily on fiction versus history, it is nonetheless completely enthralling in its telling. Many historical biographical period pieces can end up as great bores, but this one succeeds on many levels. Shekar Kapur brings a vivid flourish to his direction, which detractors might call “flashy”, but it invigorates the genre and breathes a bloody new life into it. The grandeur and the sweeping, romanticized re-telling may rely heavily on the imagination of the filmmaker and the actors, but it’s so visually appealing and suspenseful that it is actually great fun to watch – despite some soapy moments. Elizabeth doesn’t shy away from the more risqué themes: war, brutality, patriotism, gender politics and especially sex and lust. It is also about one woman proving to her detractors that she can survive anything they throw at her, despite lying and secrets surrounding everything she does.
Beginning the story as a naive little girl who fears daily for her life (she is, after all, a Protestant), Blanchett disappears into her creation, blending a potent talent and sensuality with a steely royal gaze (in her early scenes, you can see the kindness in Elizabeth’s eyes, she is soft and trusting). As the film moves on, Blanchett’s demeanor miraculously changes and she becomes more in control and more commanding. It’s a really subtle transformation that culminates in the glorious final shot of Elizabeth’s pancake-made-up face, all bone white and emotionless. It is suggested she wore the extreme make-up as an homage to Mary, the mother of Christ, after gazing at a statue. She wanted to give her subjects something equally divine so she chopped off all of her hair and became that visage. She would never again allow her emotions to dictate her decisions. It is a chilling moment when she declares “I have become a virgin”, letting go of all of the mistakes and lapses in judgment and becoming what her country needed. “I am married to England”, she decried. She went on to make the country one of the world’s greatest powers.
The private life of a queen is appealing to fantasize about and Blanchett’s willingness to play her as worried, curious, and enjoying her reign is indeed brave. Her need for solitude and the cold reality of her actual lack of privacy are interesting touches, and though a tad melodramatic, the sexuality of the “virgin queen” is handled with provocative taste (One of my favorite scenes, which is quite heavy on atmosphere, is the one where Elizabeth is attended to by her ladies in waiting while a storm brews outside the castle. They peel away her layers and corsets as the thunder and lightning rings ominously in the distance. It is beautiful).
Blanchett also gets many great “actor’s” moments: Her first big speech about unifying religion is electric and the declaration that she is “no man’s Elizabeth” is properly aloof and powerful (“I may be a woman but I can have the heart of a man if I choose” might be the actresses’ most powerful and telling line in the entire film). The viewer can see Blanchett’s mind working on screen, the finely crafted wheels turning with every decision. A rare performer that can make viewers suspend their disbelief as they travel back to an unusual time in history, Blanchett makes her version of this infamous monarch more accessible than all of the other women who played her previously. This Elizabeth, while still true to her origins and legends, is given a new, modern perspective that never feels like a dull lecture on history.