Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Elizabeth’: A Queen as Divine as She Was Human

By Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.
October 22, 2021 Updated: October 22, 2021

September 8, 1998 (UK) | R | 2h 4min

“Elizabeth” (1998), a depiction of the early life and times of Elizabeth I of England (daughter of the notorious Henry VIII), is considered to be Australian actress Cate Blanchett’s international breakout role. It was the first time most people had ever seen her on-screen before. It was a powerful, “A Star Is Born” debut.

woman with red hair in ELIZABETH
Elizabeth I of England (Cate Blanchett), in “Elizabeth.” (PolyGram Filmed Entertainment)

Blanchett is hands down the queen of this opulent cinematic Renaissance pageantry, plain and simple. Without her, Indian director Shekhar Kapur’s labyrinthine history lesson (playing fast and loose with the actual history, it must be added) would have merely been a bunch of dark maneuverings in murky castles by men in tights.

six women in dresses on a lawn in Elizabeth
Elizabeth I of England (Cate Blanchett, C) and her maids-in-waiting, in “Elizabeth.” (PolyGram Filmed Entertainment)

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Blanchett’s declaration, “I am no man’s Elizabeth”—like fellow Aussie actress Miranda Otto’s later declaration in “The Lord of the Rings,” “I am no man,” before smiting the mighty Nazgul witch-king—gave audiences to understand that here was indeed a woman with the fortitude to rule the British empire. (Blanchett also played Queen Galadriel in “The Lord of the Rings.”)

In fact, “Elizabeth” cast member Christopher Eccleston (Duke of Norfolk) said that it was Cate’s fiery Aussie blood that helped her nail this role, something he felt would have eluded most of her Brit actress contemporaries.

“Elizabeth” covers just a small part at the beginning of the monarch’s 44-year reign, but it’s the juiciest, most Shakespearean part, beginning when she was an intelligent, educated, but untested and wet-behind-the-ears young lass, head over heels in love with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes) with nary a care in the world. And then the monumental ascension to power, akin to a true spiritual awakening.

man and woman on couch in ELIZABETH
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes), and Elizabeth I, Queen of England (Cate Blanchett) dally on a couch at a costume party, in “Elizabeth.” (PolyGram Filmed Entertainment)

The History

Elizabeth’s precursor, the Catholic Queen Mary I (Kathy Burke), also known as “Bloody Mary” for burning 280 Protestants at the stake for refusing to convert, lied to the public, proclaiming that her distended belly was a pregnancy when it was actually cancer of the womb. She died in 1558. Her heir and Protestant half-sister Elizabeth, who’d been locked up in the Tower of London for conspiracy charges, is then freed and crowned queen of England.

Three women in a dark room in ELIZABETH
(L–R) Catholic Queen “Bloody Mary” (Kathy Burke), future Queen Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett), and Mary’s dwarf (Valerie Gale) in Mary’s chambers, in “Elizabeth.” (PolyGram Filmed Entertainment)

Elizabeth inherits a chaotic England besieged by hostile neighboring countries, crumbling infrastructure, massive debt, and scheming, treasonous nobles lurking in her court, especially the Duke of Norfolk (Eccleston).

Her adviser, Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough), would like Elizabeth to marry and produce an heir to shore up the country’s perilous state. But young Elizabeth is not impressed with her suitors, especially France’s leader Mary of Guise’s nephew, Duc d’Anjou (Vincent Cassel), whom Elizabeth catches red-handed partying in his chambers with his entourage, wearing a dress, lipstick, and emitting high-pitched shrieks and giggles. She therefore continues her not-so-secret affair with Lord Robert Dudley.

a man and two women in Elizabeth
The queen’s counsel Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough) and Elizabeth I, Queen of England (Cate Blanchett, R), in “Elizabeth.” (PolyGram Filmed Entertainment)

War With France

When French Queen Mary of Guise (Fanny Ardant), perceiving Elizabeth as weak, sends 4,000 French troops to Scotland, Elizabeth, browbeaten by Norfolk at the war council, orders a military response.

The professional French soldiers slaughter the inexperienced English troops (because a conspiracy of English lords and Catholic priests withheld Britain’s real fighting men). Elizabeth also survives an assassination attempt by Mary of Guise in the form of a poisoned dress that one of Elizabeth’s handmaidens is unlucky enough to wear while cheating in a castle alcove with Elizabeth’s lying paramour, Lord Dudley.

Recognizing the treason swiftly aligning against Elizabeth, Cecil appoints Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), a Protestant exile returned from France, to be her bodyguard and adviser. Elizabeth sends Walsingham to Scotland with a message for Mary of Guise: She will reconsider marrying Guise’s dress-wearing nephew. Unfortunately for the bloodthirsty Guise, it turns out that Walsingham also happens to be a skilled assassin.

ELIZABETH
Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) speaks of treasonous political alliances, in “Elizabeth.” (PolyGram Filmed Entertainment)

Uniting the Christians

In an attempt to heal England’s religious divisions, Elizabeth signs into law the Act of Uniformity, which unites all English Christians under the Church of England—severing England’s connection to the Vatican.

a catholic pope in Elizabeth
Sir John Gielgud as the pope in “Elizabeth.” (PolyGram Filmed Entertainment)

Naturally, the pope (Sir John Gielgud) is not having any of that, and he sends James Bond to England to assist Norfolk and his co-conspirators in hatching their plot to overthrow Elizabeth. That is, he sends a priest played by Daniel Craig.

ELIZABETH
(L–R) The Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston), Norfolk’s man (Liam Foley), and Catholic priest John Ballard (Daniel Craig) meet in secret to discuss the overthrow of Queen Elizabeth, in “Elizabeth.” (PolyGram Filmed Entertainment)

Coming Into Her Own

Elizabeth eventually fires Cecil, decides to follow her own counsel, and sets Walsingham to apprehend John Ballard, the priest carrying conspiracy letters from the pope. Under torture, Ballard sings like a canary, naming names and revealing the Vatican plot to put Norfolk on the throne if he agrees to marry Mary, Queen of Scots. Norfolk is arrested.

Norfolk: “I am Norfolk!!”
Walsingham: “You were Norfolk. Dead men have no names.”

man in purple Renaissance clothing in ELIZABETH
The Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston), in “Elizabeth.” (PolyGram Filmed Entertainment)

Severed heads are put on spikes. Elizabeth is no longer playing around. Elizabeth has had it. She’s all grown up, and deadly. Her treasonous, cheating (and, she discovers, married) boyfriend she lets live, to remind herself of how close she came to danger.

The most powerful moment in the movie is when Elizabeth heeds Walsingham’s wisdom that she must sacrifice her human happiness in order to become the pure link to the divine that the people can actually touch. Ironically, she draws inspiration from a statue of the Virgin Mary. She cuts her long hair, bedaubs her face with chalk-white makeup, renounces the flesh, proclaims herself married to England, and presents herself to her kingdom as “the Virgin Queen.” And on her stately approach to the throne, among kneeling courtiers and royal attendants—a woman indeed fervently reaches out to touch the hem of her robe. Imagine the inspirational power of such deep faith.

Thoughts

In a time when women were able to acquire status only through marriage, Queen Elizabeth led an empire. With her power constantly challenged by powerful men of church and state, conspiring against her every which way, it’s little wonder that the strength of the first Elizabeth to rule England at such a young and tender age is legendary.

And while it’s been mentioned more than once that this transformational arc bears a chilling resemblance to Michael Corleone’s transition to power in “The Godfather,” the two films couldn’t be farther apart. “The Godfather” is about the loss of compassion and the death of the soul by an individual headed for hell.

woman in green dress in ELIZABETH
Elizabeth I, Queen of England (Cate Blanchett) experiencing a dark night of the soul and realizing that she must abandon a human way of life and become a vessel for the divine to best serve her people, in “Elizabeth.” (PolyGram Filmed Entertainment)

The resemblance, which hinges on Elizabeth’s stoned-faced ascension to the imperial monarchy, is a culmination of the long journey of growing up, battling fears, shedding illusions, absorbing pain, learning judgment, acquiring the steel, sinew, and resolve of a true leader, and becoming one of the rare early female heads of state to rule successfully without an alliance with a man.

Ultimately, though, what we witness is the inspirational (and daunting) sacrificing of human emotion in order to become an empty vessel—a conduit for the divine to shine through. She relinquishes the love of a man in order to touch the people with the elevated compassion of a true spiritual leader.

Queen Elizabeth I in ELIZABETH
Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen” of England (Cate Blanchett), has sacrificed all things of a human nature to best serve her people, in “Elizabeth.” (PolyGram Filmed Entertainment)

The film was nominated for seven Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actress, Makeup (won), Cinematography, Costume Design, Art Design, and Original Dramatic Score. Cate Blanchett won for Best Actress in nine other award ceremonies, including the Golden Globes.

‘Elizabeth’
Director: Shekhar Kapur
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Joseph Fiennes, Richard Attenborough, Vincent Cassel, John Gielgud, Daniel Craig
Running Time: 2 hours, 4 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: Feb. 19, 1999 (U.S.)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.