…It should be seen. So too, and not just for the Australian content, should Elizabeth, a film that gets to the nub of the mad Celt punch-up that was Elizabethan England (I do love thee, Essex, and though alas I must have thy head by the morrow morn, I shall view it, my dear, dear love, with regret; then breakfast early and go falconing), a country then more Spanish, even Moorish, in its tendencies (with knightly chivalry, Christ-fever, thumbscrews and regular palace poisonings in its briskly blended paella) than, say, Queen Victoria’s England – or Queen Camilla’s – where executions were less frequent or, in the case of Diana’s (or His Royal Highness Jack the Ripper’s), more deftly covered up. This is why Sir Richard Attenborough, who plays Lord Cecil as the perfect pompous Tennysonian gentleman, is the worst thing in it, and Christopher Eccleston as Norfolk, a slope-shouldered nostril-flaring rottweiler prepared to slay his anointed virgin sovereign for the sake of Pope and Holy Mother Church and equally prepared to perish on the block for his ferocious faith and incidental treason is one of the best.
It is good, I think, that the film is directed by an Indian, Shekhar Kapur, to whom both the past and England are foreign countries, for he does not (as, say, Attenborough would have done if directing it, or Alan Parker or Ken Branagh) try to make familiar and modern its tribal barbarities and bloodstained superstitions. He also, thankfully, does not do a Shakespeare on it, needlessly ennobling the shoddy motives of the shrewd but lucky winners or the tragically wrongfooted losers. Elizabeth, as besmirched by royal hypocrisy as any of them, promises clemency to her old Catholic rescuers, and, coldly, with a long pale drifting look that tells us everything, does not provide it. Shakespeare would have expended a soliloquy on that moment: one long fleering look from Blanchett is enough.
Of Blanchett’s already much-honoured performance little else needs now be said. She is as good (of course) when playing the breathless warm fluttery adolescent virgin as she is when playing the determined icy Thatcherish mistress-monarch of 1550s realpolitik with the toughness of a Kissinger in petticoats. The film tells us what hardened her, but the gradations of her performance – better, for instance, than those of V. Redgrave in Mary Queen of Scots or G. Jackson in Elizabeth R or L. Ullman in Pope Joan – arouse, delight, appal and freeze the marrow by turns as her saga proceeds.
She is very good indeed. Geoffrey Rush as Walsingham, the first Elizabeth’s murderous manipulative Machiavel (or Mandelson), is, if anything, a little better. Both explicable and yet unknowable, with a self-servingness that is also (for such interesting times) a stupendous loyalty, he gives us emotions we recognise but cannot name. When it seems for a time he is defecting to Marie of Guise we have no way of guessing, so superb is his grave and magnetic dissembling, whether he is actually doing it or only pretending to. Everything he does, as in a great Shakespearian performance, is both intellectually surprising and emotionally correct. His reading of the climactic line, ‘No, they will forget’, ranks with Charles Laughton at his best. It is an astonishing performance, and so is that of Kathy Burke as the hysterically pregnant, lovelorn and womb-cancer-crazed Bloody Mary, Joseph Fiennes as the double-dealing-besotted-monarch-swiver Robert Dudley (who, had she wed him as she wished on that fiery night of oars and ripples and queenly coquetry and stabbings, might have prevented, by thus bestirring Christendom to a Holy War fought on English ground, the entire modern world). Likewise Eric Cantona, the football player, as the double-dealing Monsieur De Foix, Vincent Cassel as the petulant transvestite ratbag Anjou (whose appearance in beard, bra and garters is an unexpected surprise), and a scurrying melee of solemn dwarves as assorted courtiers and chambermaids.
I have said elsewhere that the coupling of Rush and Blanchett, like the coupling in L.A. Confidential of Crowe and Pearce, adds to an elderly genre (the costume spectacle, the film noir) an Australian edge, a gem-like hardness of purpose over unwavering inner flame, a perfect apportionment of innocence and cynicism, romantic attack and weary world wisdom, that few other actors (the Irish excepted) can give. It is good to be part, however distantly, of an international triumph because of it, and a worthy one at that.