Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Elizabeth (revisited)

This is the first time I re-review a movie I have previously reviewed here before. Hope you will find the comparison interesting.

Lowdown: The story of the first Queen Elizabeth's rise to power.
Our recent approach to Elizabeth is more than a bit twisted. Hunger for more Game of Thrones like material made us try Vikings. Vikings, it turns out, was written by a guy called Michael Hirst. Since we liked Viking’s recipe of fact based fiction we further pursued the exploits of Hirst, which sent us watching the TV series The Tudors. Once we finished with the semi historical affairs of King Henry the 8th we were hungry to see what happened afterwards, which – very naturally – sent us on a path to rewatch 1998’s Elizabeth and, for that matter, 2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age. It was only in retrospect that we learned these last two were also written by the very same Michael Hirst.
The first time I watched Elizabeth, close to its release date, I did it on laserdisc. The main impressions I carried with me were of a bore-fest filled with dialog I could not properly make up. More notably, that was my first proper encounter with an actress called Cate Blanchett. This time around things are different; for a start, I know much more about Christianity, the division of the English churches, and the background setting (well, I did just watch close to 40 episodes of The Tudors). Logistically speaking, this time around I was also equipped with subtitles.
The result? What used to be a bore-fest has now turned into an intriguing, if often too slow for its own good, movie.
Although in many respect Elizabeth feels like a direct sequel to The Tudors (ignoring the fact the latter was produced later), it starts off a decade or so after The Tudors finished. Not only did Henry die, but his son Edward followed his steps already, too. We are now at the end of the reign of Queen Mary, King Henry’s oldest daughter and the result of his first marriage with a devout Spanish (and catholic) aristocrat. Mary took after her mother, and set forth “mending” the changes her father had made – that is, restoring Catholicism to England, and quite brutally so (which earned her the title “Bloody Mary”).
But things were not going well for Mary and her faith. Mary was suffering from cancer, and given her preferred religion’s preference to burn inquisitive minds rather than listening to them (lest we ever forget that aspect of Catholicism!), there was no cure for her despite a kingdom full of resources standing at her command. Worse, she was unable to provide an heir.
Thus, upon Mary's death, her title went over to Henry’s second daughter. That daughter was the product of Henry's second marriage to the protestant Anne Boleyn: Elizabeth (the First, not to be confused with Betty the Second, England’s current monarch).
Elizabeth the movie occupies itself with two core stories. First there is the story of how Elizabeth withheld her reign in the face of catholic noble adversaries who yearned for nothing less than her fall and the return of a ruler more sympathetic to their faith. Standing by Elizabeth's side is the ruthless yet loyal head of not-so-covert operations, Walsingham (portrayed by fellow Australian Geoffrey Rush).
The second core theme revolves around explaining why Elizabeth gained the title Virgin Queen (as manifested, amongst others, in the US state of Virginia, which was named after her). Elizabeth never married but, as the film tells us, had a bit of a crash on an Earl called Robert (Joseph Fiennes). Naturally, the romantic aspects of the queen’s life have direct impact on all other aspects of her rule.
Historically speaking, all this conniving around the crown is very relevant to a world commemorating the 100th “birthday” of World War 1. The connection is clear: the same meaningless plotting and fighting in the name of meaningless values were at hand with the break of the Great War. And meaningless they are, because the laymen do not care which of their alleged nobles is worthy of a crown; the laymen want to live, it’s the nobles that send them to die in the name of their internal power struggles. Differences between Catholicism and Protestantism might have seem profound 500 years ago, but in modern eyes they feel more like debating which of two farts smell worse once simultaneously released into a tight room. Yet these exact quarrels have sent millions to their untimely deaths.
My ignorance in the matters contended by Elizabeth and her peers now dissolved, I could concentrate on enjoying the movie at hand. However, one thing I could not do – a thing I could not do with any of the characters from The Tudors, either – was identify with any of them. So far are these people from us, 21st century folk.
Perhaps it is this peek into the workings of ancient times that is the true worth of Elizabeth?
Overall: A proper historical drama sporting fine actors and irrelevant conflicts, Elizabeth easily earns 3.5 out of 5 crabs and then some.

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