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I saw Elizabeth. Finally. What a strange and intriguing spectacle it is.

Let me tell you why you have to see this movie: Cate Blanchett. Where does talent like that come from? As I said in the Oscar and Lucinda review, Cate has these eyes... Successful acting of course all has to do with eyes. Not only are Cate's eyes wonders to just look at, they convey everything perfectly, from girlish delight to cold, monarchial stoicism. (Monarchial?) They can sparkle, they can dullen. (Dullen?) When you first see Cate as Elizabeth the young woman, you think, "Man, she's no queen! Look at her! What bad casting!" But then the movie happens, and by the end you have witnessed an amazing transformation. Cate has turned from ruddy-cheeked damsel to that pale, perfectly fabricated queen you see in those ugly 16th century portraits. Elizabeth's transformation is the emotional pivot that drives this movie. It works on you almost subliminally, and hits you finally with a dramatic punch. Owie.

The film's structure is that of your usual historical political suspense drama lesson movie thing. See The Madness of King George as a recent example. I was gonna say see any of those Shakespeare kingy plays, but there is definitely something different about these modern historical political suspense drama lesson movie things. Elizabeth has a modern momentum. It's two hours long, but no shot, no scene is wasted. It is also full of the type of beautiful imagery that Shakespeare would have had to have had a movie camera to capture. (Holy cow, my syntax is leaking!) Take this one, fantastic example (skip ahead if you really don't want to know, but nothing is ruined here): Elizabeth, having recently become queen, sends an army to attack the French presence in Scotland. We are not shown the battle. Instead, we are shown Elizabeth in close-up, her ladies in waiting preparing her for bed. The camera tracks out slowly. Elizabeth stands, arms splayed out while her ladies attend to her. It looks as if it's shot in slow motion, but it's not. The movements of the ladies are docile, but purposed, and somewhat erotic. Elizabeth's hand is washed. Elizabeth's hair is unwound from her head. A lady clasps her arm around Elizabeth's middle to remove a corset. All the while, violent lightning is crashing outside, sending blocks of light into the room, the sound exploding in time. The shot lasts at least a minute. That is it! That is all! This shot shows us several things at once: the battle happening far away, Elizabeth dazed by having had to make the decision to send her people into battle, and the monstrous gap between the people and their queen—they sweat and fight and die while she is safely pampered and preened.

The shot after that one is a fantastic choice as well. We see a stream with rushing water. The camera tracks left to where the water runs red with blood. The tracking shot continues and we find we are exploring the battlefield in Scotland after the attack. England has suffered a tragic and embarrassing defeat. This shot enfuses the previous one in Elizabeth's chamber with even more symbolism.

Elizabeth is that sort of sumptuous film. Shot on location in real castles. I suppose one could make the argument that they didn't show the battle because they didn't have the budget for it, which may be partially true, but when you see the lightning shot, you realize that maybe if all directors had less money to work with, they would instead come up with these sorts of fantastic solutions to their storytelling problems.

I would like to take this sapce to suggest that there be a moratorium on shots of giggling maidens dancing in green fields while wearing colorful dresses. Gads. Giggling maidens. Please. In Elizabeth, it looked like those shots were filmed separately, like the director sent the second unit back in time to the '70s specifically to get that genuine cheesy feel. Giggling maidens. Dancing. Barf.

The opening of the movie left me not hugely impressed right away, either. First was the oddly MTVish opening title sequence. I was watching it hoping the whole movie wasn't shot this way, and looking back on it, the titles were still strangely out of place. And the opening scene of Protestants being burned at the stake for heresy was a little too flashy and didn't make me feel like I think it was supposed to. It was nasty and bad, of course, but we've seen people burned at the stake before. The one shot that I did appreciate was the one from directly overhead, which showed the three shaven, razor-nicked heads of the Protestants moving in fear. It looked something like vibrating atoms. And we've all seen those, right? But the movie gets going, picks up the pace, and I gradually worked myself into it—or it worked itself into me.

I hate to admit this, but I was a bit confused by some of the politics in the movie. I would really be ruining things to give an example, so I will just say that I must have missed something because a couple things didn't jive with me. The movie didn't cheat or have plot holes, it was just so tightly constructed and so teeming with meaningful looks and innuendo that I missed something. This is not a fault! No, it just means I will have to see it again sometime to let it all fall into place for me.

The rest of the cast is mighty fine. Ralph Fiennes' brother Joseph is particularly good at being suave and brooding. He is a conflicted character whose love for Elizabeth gets tangled in the politics of her court, and his confusion and distress is palpable. Geoffrey Rush plays Sir Francis Walsingham, a man who is mysterious and confusing. He is impossible to read and unpredictable in his actions, as all good mysterious and confusing characters are. Geoffrey plays him well, but the character is so opaque it's hard to appreciate Mr. Rush's talent until the end. Christopher Eccleston is a fine Angry Dissenter and Unapologetic Catholic, the Duke of Norfolk. Richard Attenborough is very good as the means-well-but-must-be-daft-to-have-done-it scientist who brings dinosaurs back to life on a remote island by extracting their DNA from prehistoric mosquit... er, wait... wrong notes... Richard Attenborough is very good as Sir William Cecil, Elizabeth's means-well-but-doesn't-go-about-things-the-right-way guide, or counsel, or whatever it is his exact title was (maybe you British folks can enlighten us on that one). Then there's the odd Spaniard man, Alvaro de la Quadra, played by James Frain. He's got this constant sheen that makes him look like a wax statue of Antonio Banderas that's just starting to melt.

Oh, enough of the cast. They're good. Bravo.

A main theme of the movie is, of course, the Protestant vs. Catholic thing. Leapin' lozenges, it's still going on today! But at least now it's the Protestants getting pissed because the Catholics want, for some reason, to march a parade through their neighborhood and vice versa, and not Catholics chopping heads off Protestants because the Pope says so, and vice versa (while the Protestants don't have a Pope, I suggest they buy one). The movie shows how dangerous and unproductive it is when a society gets so separated by religion. Maybe we should sit the Israelis and Palestinians down to watch this one. Granted, the Protestants and Catholics of Elizabeth are English while the Israelis and Palestinians are of quite different cultures, and the Israel-Palestine thing is mired in conflicts over land, too...

Wait. Hold on. What the hell am I talking about? This is a Review On The Side, not a Dangerously Ignorant Political Idea On The Side! Me go back to who me was.

The religious thing... big part of the movie. And as you watch, you wonder what the hell they were all thinking, what the hell anyone thinks when they let religion get so out of hand. Even the Pope gets involved in the matters of Elizabeth's rule! Who does he think he is? Sorry, fella, but Rome fell long ago. Oooo, it's all so infuriating and sad. And that is what gives this movie more power. The struggle seems so pointless. Political conflicts often make for good movies, but add religion into the mix, and things get even more interesting. Politics is one thing, individuals or groups doing what they say is good for the public when really it has more to do with what the individual or group wants. It's selfish. Add religion to that and these selfish interests become ordained by God. Very dangerous. Clinton should be glad the Christian Coalition has that pesky separation of Church and State thing in the way.

Elizabeth, I hope, will give Cate Blanchett a shot at Best Actress this year. [NOTE: It has. Swell!] And from what I've seen so far, I hope she wins. I congratulate director Shekhar Kapur for casting her. In fact, I congratulate Shekhar for creating such a good piece of film. I think this is his first outside of India, and he's made the transition well.

Here's my clever closing line:

Elizabeth. A queen for her times. A queen for our times. Long may she live. Now pass the beets.





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©1998 Steven Lekowicz