The new novel deals with the double sexual standard, as does Elizabeth. And, since we have had a British royal wedding recently, this 1998 drama seems a good film to discuss. It may appear historically accurate, but it is really speculative fiction about how Elizabeth I of England turned into the renowned ruler that history actually documents. So, it is really a fictional prequel based on facts. The story shows the movement of the title character from what appears to be an innocent young woman in carefree love to a worldly monarch who sees only danger in the traditional attitudes of men toward women.
Even though she is trembling as others interrogate her, she says she is not intimidated into confessing to a conspiracy in which she has not participated. She is also ahead of her time, but naive considering the era, by advocating that “this small question of religion” should not tear the country apart. She seeks common ground by saying “we all believe in God.” But, the reality of the rigidity of religion shown in the first scene of the film is repeated here as she is told that there is only one true religion, and the other is heresy. Queen Mary is not pregnant but really has a tumor (a sort of plot element that underpins the theme of a benevolent appearance - pregnancy - disguising a malignant truth below - the tumor). She summons Elizabeth wanting her half-sister to assure her that the country will remain catholic. Elizabeth enters the Queen’s chamber through a door painted with the Virgin Mary nursing the baby Jesus. This image contains multiple suggestions. First, it is a catholic inspired painting, and Elizabeth coming through a portal behind it implies that she will replace the catholic presence with a protestant one. Also, the typical role of a woman is to bear children, and Elizabeth, as we will see, defies the traditional attitudes toward women. The scene is also a foreshadowing of Elizabeth emulating the virgin aspect of Mary, as she will become known as The Virgin Queen, a secular version of the religious mother, whose title conveys a rejection of a woman conquered by men by means of gender dominance.
Queen Mary is desperate, saying that her often absent husband has now deserted her for good. She is in denial about the physicians telling her she has a tumor, believing instead that conspirators poisoned her unborn child. She tells Elizabeth that all she has to do is sign her sister’s death sentence to stop her from becoming a heretic on the throne. But, Elizabeth shows strength by not giving in, saying that she will act according to her conscience. She points out that they share the same father, Henry VIII, which means that Elizabeth, too, is of royal lineage. She reminds Mary that she will be killing her sister. Playing the sibling and guilt cards works and Elizabeth can go home, although under guard. She walks steadily through the hall filled with noblemen, and after she leaves, laughs when she hears Norfolk berating his fellow men for being intimidated by the young princess. Norfolk hears that Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) is returning to England at the request of Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough) to protect Elizabeth, and, privately, this information worries Norfolk, and rightly so, as we shall see.
There is a cut to Walsingham musing philosophically to a young man. Is he a youthful lover, or possibly a protege? In any event, the scene quickly reveals Walsingham’s character. He says, “There is so little beauty in the world, and so much suffering. Do you suppose that is what God had in mind? That is to say that there is a god at all. Perhaps there is nothing in this universe but ourselves. And our thoughts.” This short speech shows Walsingham to hold a rather negative view of the world with little redeeming quality, which leads him to question the existence of a god that would allow so much “suffering.” So, he has no allegiance to a supernatural being, and blames the ills of the world on the human race, which he deals with in a coldly efficient pragmatic manner. The young man, perhaps sent to get close to Walsingham in order to assassinate him, pulls a dagger. To further the theme in the movie, the young man appears harmless, but is there to commit murder. Walsingham tells him coolly, even in the face of his own death, to consider what he is about to do, and if decides to go through with the killing, do it without regret. The young man does not go through with the murder. Walsingham says to him that innocence is the most precious thing, “lose it, and you lose your soul.” His words echo the fall from God’s grace of Adam and Eve once they forfeited their innocence and ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge that informed them about the existence of evil. Walsingham has lost what for him was the bliss of being ignorant of the corruption of the world, and now so has the youth in his assassination attempt. For that, Walsingham kills him.
Sir William is one of the few noblemen who tries to protect Elizabeth, although in a traditionally male patronizing way. He meets with her for safety in a confessional booth and warns her not to associate with anyone which may compromise her. He advises against having romantic liaisons with Lord Robert, which can be used as a way to attack her on moral grounds. The meeting in the confessional also serves symbolically to show that a place which appears to be used for holy reasons has been subverted to actually be used for secular, political purposes. Elizabeth is now losing her innocence as she has to deal with political maneuvering. Sir William has Elizabeth meet with the ambassador from Spain, Alvaro, who proposes that a marriage to his king will ensure Elizabeth’s protection with an alliance to another monarch. The Spanish want to make sure that with Elizabeth becoming a secondary figure through marriage to the Spanish king, Catholicism will remain the ruling religion in England. He assures Elizabeth that she will only have to see the king two or three times a year. So much for romantic love. Elizabeth is outraged since Mary is still alive and Elizabeth is not yet queen.
Walsingham almost seems to float around the periphery of meetings, almost an invisible spy, observing those at a court party, and assessing threats to Elizabeth, including Norfolk and the Spanish ambassador, Alvaro. Here, the French emissary, Monsieur de Foix (Eric Cantona), with Sir William at his side, proposes to Elizabeth the benefits of marrying a French nobleman. Elizabeth, provocatively but shrewdly, says she wonders why the French have helped fortify the garrison for Mary Queen of Scots (Fanny Ardant), who is a Catholic who wants to replace Elizabeth on the throne. Sir William knows that Lord Robert is sleeping with Elizabeth, and he tells the ladies in her entourage that he wants to see the Queen’s bed sheets so he can monitor her bodily functions. The assumption is to see if she has lost her virginity and whether or not she no longer menstruates because she is pregnant. He says that she has lost privacy by becoming Queen of England. But, it also points to the sexist attitude of marginalizing Elizabeth based on her childbearing potential.
We again have contrasting scenes, where the joys of Elizabeth’s lovemaking with Lord Robert are diminished by Norfolk riding to confront Elizabeth, violating her bedroom privacy, by rudely requiring her to deal with Mary, Queen of Scots. The French are increasing their reinforcements in Scotland. Again, the noblemen try to bully Elizabeth, urging her to go to war with Scotland. Even Lord Robert agrees to the war, if Elizabeth believes it is necessary for her safety. Only Walsingham says it is not a good idea to react too hastily, making it look like she is afraid of her own shadow. Elizabeth declares that she does not like the unpredictability of wars. However, she agrees to the attack. We then see the aftermath of the battle with Mary, Queen of Scots, where most of the British soldiers, consisting of young boys, have been slaughtered.
There is again a shot from above, as if from the view of God in heaven, assessing human action. Elizabeth is fuming, finding no solace in the company of her ladies, and is feeling abandoned since Lord Robert has gone hunting. She goes to a large portrait of her father, Henry VIII, as if to derive inspiration as to how to proceed. This scene is lit darkly, in contrast to the brightness of earlier scenes infused with happiness with Lord Robert and when she was first appointed Queen of England. Her hair is no longer straight, but is curling, as if to suggest how twisted the affairs of humans can become once innocence is left behind. Walsingham interrupts her despair as he attempts to make her face the reality of the treachery against her. He tells her that the Catholic Bishops, from their pulpits, supposedly places of higher morality, told their adult male parishioners not to join the fight against the French troops in Scotland. He tells her that they have no fear of Elizabeth, and want to depict her as a failed ruler, who will not survive.
Elizabeth angrily confronts Lord Robert for not being at court when she needed him, but which reinforces her growing independence from men. However, she must capitulate to political necessity and agrees to meet with Duc d’Anjou (Vincent Cassel) to consider marriage to him to cement English-French relations due to the defeat in Scotland. Monsieur de Foix tells Sir William that having Lord Robert as a romantic rival is not acceptable, and Sir William, who on the surface is supposed to be Elizabeth’s ally, says that Lord Robert’s head will be on a pike rather than be on a pillow in the Queen’s bed. Sir William cares about England, but is not really concerned about Elizabeth as an individual.
Duc d’Anjou arrives and he is a prankster, pretending to be a servant at first, then grabbing and kissing Elizabeth, whispering to her what it would be like when they are in bed together. His French crudeness contrasts with English reserve. This division between the two countries is stressed when Elizabeth leaves her reserved English party and visits d’Anjou’s decadent gathering, where he is wearing a dress. A smiling Elizabeth says with understated British humor that she doesn’t think things will work out between the two of them.
Earlier, Elizabeth is on a barge with Lord Robert, who recites poetry to the Queen, and asks her to marry him. She seems reluctant to say yes, as she does not like being pressured by all these men to get married, thus relinquishing her independence and power to a man. She flaunts her relationship with Robert at the French and Spanish envoys revealing her rebellious nature in front of those who want to exert their wills on her. This lighthearted scene suddenly becomes deadly serious as arrows zing into the barge. One of Elizabeth's men is killed, and the Queen is nearly pierced by an arrow. Walsingham, always on the job, whisks Elizabeth to safety. He concludes correctly that since the French and Spanish are trying to gain control through the marriage of Elizabeth, that it is Norfolk who has made an attempt on Elizabeth’s life.
The next film is Stand and Deliver.