Sunday, June 10, 2018


SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
I wanted to mention that my new novel, The Bigger Picture, a mystery for movie lovers, like its prequel, Out of the Picture, is now available on Kindle. The link to Amazon is:

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.

We are told at the beginning that the year is 1554, King Henry VIII is dead, and his daughter, Mary Tudor is Queen. However, she has no child to ascend to the throne. She is a Catholic, and the country is torn between catholics and protestants. Elizabeth is her half-sister, the child of Henry and Anne Boleyn, whose marriage was not recognized by the Catholic Church. The catholics consider Elizabeth an illegitimate offspring, and because she is protestant, a heretic.

The first shot is of someone savagely cutting the hair off of a screaming woman as blood runs down her scalp (this foreshadows a different type of hair cutting at the end of the movie). Having long beautiful hair indicated that a woman was a virgin emphasizing her physical attributes to attract a male. The extreme shortening of this woman’s hair was to symbolize a lack of purity. In the sixteenth century, people are deadly serious about what they consider to be religious heresy. The woman, along with two other persons, are burned at the stake as protestant sympathizers, while a bishop presides over the ceremony, proclaiming that these three will burn forever in hell. The scene powerfully stresses the barbaric nature to which religion can descend when its self-righteous element predominates.

Camera angles carry meaning in this film. The opening shot and others look down from on high at the events below. It provides the audience a more inclusive view of events, but it also implies a perception that maybe God is looking down on the actions of people, whose lives are many times petty compared to the grand scope of eternal time.

The Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston) learns from a female servant that Queen Mary Tudor (Kathy Burke) has not had a period recently and her belly is fuller. Norfolk considers the possibility that Mary may be pregnant, although the servant says that her husband has not been sharing her bed. The use of a spy (the servant) to ascertain information here is one instance of many in the film of how benign appearances are used to deceive others in order to advance a more sinister agenda. The main underlying conspiracy here is to at first prevent Elizabeth from becoming a protestant queen, and later, to either weaken her power, or remove her from the throne once she becomes the ruler. Norfolk meets with the Queen, a cleric, and a representative from the Spanish royalty, Alvaro de la Quadra (James Frain), to try and link Elizabeth to a conspiracy against the Queen. On the surface these people are supposed to be noble personages, but they conspire to discuss ways of falsely accusing Elizabeth of treason. Mary tells Norfolk to find proof of treachery, implying he will invent evidence if need be.
There is a scene with the young Princess Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett), who is great in any role) practicing dancing in a field with her female entourage. It is a bright scene, pastoral, full of innocent joy. And, it depicts the excitement of youthful hope in the anticipation of a developing love as Lord Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) arrives. He enters the scene on horseback, the animal an archetypal symbol of male sexuality.  Lord Robert woos Elizabeth, but we have a contrasting cut to men riding in armor, an image of the violent side of men as opposed to the romantic one. These soldiers arrive to disrupt Elizabeth’s happy time with an accusation that Elizabeth has conspired against Queen Mary. Before taking her to the Tower of London to be imprisoned, Lord Robert tells her “Remember who you are. Do not be afraid of them.” His empowering words, reminding Elizabeth that she comes from royalty and that she should not be frightened in this world run by men, reverberate throughout the story, and, ironically, bring about Lord Robert’s own downfall.
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.

Faced with the objectionable Spanish offer of marriage, Elizabeth disobeys Sir William’s order (another example of her female defiance) and meets with Lord Robert. He wonders if, after she is queen, and has “a court to worship you, a country to obey you, poems written celebrating your beauty, music composed in your honor,” he will mean nothing to her. She laughs and asks “How could you ever be nothing to me? Robert, you know you are everything to me.” At that moment she is very much in love, and has hope for the two of them. His words are a foreshadowing of what is to come.

On Mary’s deathbed, Norfolk pleads for the dying queen to sign the order to put Elizabeth to death. She does not, and Lord Sussex (Jamie Foreman) rides to deliver the ring that appoints Elizabeth as the new ruler. The scene showing the acceptance of the ring has Elizabeth going outside into total whiteness, which signifies her ascending to a higher realm, but which implies a distancing from those she associated with on a lower social level. As she accepts the ring, Elizabeth’s voice transforms. It becomes deeper, more authoritative, as she says, “This is the Lord’s doing.” Her words lend spiritual justification to her becoming queen. She adds, “It is marvelous in our eyes.” She quickly adopts the use of the royal first person plural with the use of the word “our,” showing how she now identifies herself as the representative of the people of England. The British believed in the concept of The Chain of Being. It stated that there was a vertical order with God at the top and all living creatures on earth were placed in descending order in this hierarchy based on their intrinsic worth. The royal leader was at the top of the chain, touching the divine and acting as God’s representative on earth.
The coronation is a sumptuous affair, full of pomp and circumstance, with Norfolk, reluctantly, playing the role of the nobleman who must deliver to the new monarch the objects, the scepter, the crown, etc., that are the symbols that legitimize Elizabeth as Queen of England, Ireland, and France. What follows however is in stark contrast as the noblemen meet with Elizabeth in private and attempt to undermine her authority. They tell her that the kingdom is in dire straights, with no money and no armed forces. They do not see her as capable of ruling since she is a woman, and they suggest that she must marry and produce an heir in order to secure the order assured by a line of succession. So, basically, they are telling her that she is only good for breeding. She wants no more talk of marriage, and in a rebellious statement, says she wonders why women marry at all, which is the opposite belief of the time which saw women’s only power relegated to providing sex and procreation.
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.

We see Elizabeth using her increasing political abilities when she addresses the noblemen and the bishops. Although she wanted to mitigate religion as an issue, she has found she must quiet the conflict, and asks for the country to declare one Church of England to bring unity to the land. However, that would mean denying Catholicism its religious rule over England. She pretends to be “only a woman” and as such can’t force the noblemen to do anything, thus playing up to their male idea of superiority. Instead, she appeals to the English virtue of “common sense,” arguing that there cannot be loyalty to two different masters. The men shift the argument to the need for her to marry, but she says to one nobleman that he shouldn’t give marriage advice since he was twice-divorced, and now married a third time. This statement draws laughter, as she wins the crowd over with her sense of humor. Walsingham is present and he smiles, showing admiration for Elizabeth’s skills. He has locked up five noblemen who are on Norfolk’s side, and Elizabeth gets her way by exactly five votes, which shows Walsingham’s insight and skill at getting results by whatever means necessary.
But the catholic side ups the game of treachery. The Pope (John Gielgud, in his last movie role), meets with an English priest, John Ballard (Daniel Craig), who the Pope orders to assassinate Elizabeth as a heretic. Here we have supposedly the holiest man on earth sending another man of God, ironically, to do the work of the Devil. Ballard has letters of dispensation from the Pope to absolve any Englishman who will end Elizabeth’s life, which is an unholy act by a seemingly holy man. When Ballard arrives on the shores of England he has intelligence (this is more like secret agent stuff than pious activity) that Sir Thomas Elyot (Kenny Doughty) is Walsingham’s spy in Norfolk’s camp. Ballard drags Elyot off along the beach and brutally murders him by beating him with a rock. You wouldn’t want this fellow to dole out penance after your confession.
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 French representative, Monsieur de Foix, wanting to eliminate Lord Robert as a rival, tells Elizabeth that she cannot marry Robert because he already has a wife. So, even the one man who she feels she can be intimate with and trust, has been deceiving her. At a dance she confronts Lord Robert with this truth, and he pleads to her and says, “For God’s sake, you are still my Elizabeth.” The Queen angrily responds to the possessive nature of that statement by saying, “I am not your Elizabeth. I am no man’s Elizabeth. And if you think to rule, you are mistaken.” She has made her declaration of independence from all men, telling them she is their ruler.

Elizabeth refuses to see Lord Robert and he becomes bitter and overwhelmed by her rejection. He is now fertile ground for the conspirators plotting against the Queen. The Spanish ambassador, who urges Norfolk to remove Elizabeth, tells Robert that Elizabeth is in danger, and he can protect the Queen by cooperating with him. One of Elizabeth’s ladies is attracted to Robert. She notices a dress sent as a gift to Elizabeth, and decides to wear it in order to seduce Robert. Here again Elizabeth is undermined by a supposedly trusted servant, who uses her closeness to the Queen to lure the man who loves her. Robert, in a perverted desire for a surrogate Elizabeth, has sex with the servant while she wears the dress. The woman’s cries of ecstasy turn into cries of pain. The dress has been poisoned, meant to kill Elizabeth. We have a piece of clothing that appears to be a gift and is beautiful on the outside, but contains poison below its enticing exterior. The dress is an effective symbol to further the theme of the villainous treachery that lies beneath supposedly pleasing exteriors. This idea is immediately reinforced by the slow motion advancing of the assassin priest, Ballard, in a monk’s robe, a piece of religious apparel, which also hides his face, as he violates Elizabeth’s sanctuary, penetrating her defenses. The effect makes him simultaneously to appear holy as he makes the sign of the cross, but also covertly deadly, looking like the Grim Reaper. The plot concerning the dress has not worked out, and the commotion surrounding the finding of the dead woman causes Ballard to run for cover.
Walsingham has no problem fighting fire with fire. He pretends to be defecting to the other side. He is like The Godfather’s Luca Brasi, only successful. He visits Queen Mary in Scotland while d’Anjou is visiting. He says that Elizabeth should never have rejected d’Anjou. He states that he has come to realize that Elizabeth has no allies, only enemies, and it will only be a matter of time before she is overthrown. With a double meaning, in an attempt to seduce Mary, he says a wise man, to avoid harm to himself, would change allegiance and “get into bed” with one of her enemies. We then hear d’Anjou’s screams as he discovers the dead Mary naked in her bed. Walsingham, adopting the enemy’s ploy of presenting a friendly front, used the disguise of affection in order to deceive and then kill Mary.

Lord Robert is now a pawn of Alvaro, the Spanish ambassador, in the political chess game. Robert is able to meet with Elizabeth and he tells her that she is in danger. If she agrees to ally herself with Spain, he can guarantee her safety. Robert is making himself a pimp, trying to deliver Elizabeth to the Spanish king, who she will only visit occasionally. Robert is willing to give her up officially so that they can continue their affair. We have him here being a full supporter of keeping up deceptive appearances. Elizabeth, knowing about his having sex with her lady servant, rejects him, and says what he is proposing is to make her his “whore.”
Sir William tells Elizabeth to denounce the murder of Mary, Queen of Scots, and with a sideways look at Walsingham, says she did not order it (which is probably true, but she is apparently okay with the results at this point, not distancing herself from Walsingham). She reluctantly is accepting the brutal reality of being a world ruler. Sir William continues to say that she “must” ally with Spain. Elizabeth, asserting herself, says he dare not use the word “must” to her, and it implies that he would not use it if he were talking to a man. He continues his condescension by saying Elizabeth “is only a woman.” She yells at him that if she chooses, she can have “the heart of a man.” Today that sounds like she is saying that a man is stronger than a woman, but given the time, her statement asserts that she can be as strong as any man. She actually follows Lord Robert’s early advice and says, “I am not afraid of anything.” She graciously thanks Sir William for his past help, but sheds his male counseling by retiring him, and says she will rely on herself hereafter, again asserting her independence. He exchanges a bow with Walsingham, which visually communicates a changing of the guard from one man who undermined the Queen, with another who builds her confidence and empowerment.

Walsingham tells Elizabeth to not be sorry about being “ruthless” to protect herself and her country. He knows about Ballard who has conspired with her enemies. She acknowledges knowing about the priest, since she saw him at the castle, and with a hard look on her face, so foreign from the one we saw in the fields at the beginning of the film, tells Walsingham to find the priest and the conspirators. He locates the cleric, and tortures him until he gives up the Pope’s papers that implicate Norfolk and others. Norfolk only has to sign the papers to show that he agrees to remove Elizabeth from the throne. To expose Norfolk’s treason, removing his cloak of nobility, she coldly tells Walsingham, “Then let him sign it, and let it all be done.”

Walsingham uses treachery to defeat treachery by using Norfolk’s mistress to get Norfolk to sign the papers. She is to deliver them to the Pope, but instead she gives the signed document to Walsingham. What follows is obviously a nod to the ending of The Godfather. The soundtrack provides religious choir music as the conspirators are killed, the Earl of Sussex unheroically meeting his end sitting on the toilet. Alvaro, the Spanish ambassador, and other noblemen and bishops are eliminated. Walsingham visits Norfolk with soldiers and shows him the signed document that sealed his fate. He protests, his pride in his title a delusion, as he says,”I am Norfolk.” Walsingham corrects him by saying, “You were Norfolk. The dead have no titles.” He already is putting him in the past tense before he is later beheaded. Norfolk was contemptuous of a woman on the throne, but ironically is undone by the woman sleeping in his bed. He was outmaneuvered and made an example of how those who model deception may be undone by deceit. Elizabeth confronts Lord Robert who conspired with the Spanish ambassador. She allows him to live, “to always remind me of how close I came to danger” by compromising her individuality, and the power that derives from it, for a man.

We have a scene where Elizabeth is at the foot of a statue of the Virgin Mary, looking up at her. It is made of stone, something enduring, outlasting human decay. Walsingham says the Queen (being at that connecting point between the heavens and earth) represents a chance for the people to have a chance to touch the divine on earth. She says to him that Jesus’ mother had such power over men’s hearts, and Walsingham agrees that there has been no one to replace her.
Elizabeth remakes herself. She cuts her hair, whose length traditionally represented purity in a woman, as noted above. She rewrites that idea, and has her ladies apply a thick alabaster paste all over her skin, which makes her look like a statute, not a human being. She dresses in a very ornate outfit that almost appears as if it was sculpted out of stone. She has made herself appear like a religious icon. She tells her lady servant, “I have become a virgin.” She is emulating a divine woman, and emancipating herself from being the traditional sexual object of men. She royally walks among her subjects, stopping to tell Sir William, who wanted her to marry, that, “I am married … to England,” something grander than any individual man, who would only use her to satisfy his lust for dominion over her. The camera now shoots upward at Elizabeth, as she has risen to the level of adoration, like a goddess.

The postscript says that Elizabeth reigned for forty years. She never met with Robert again, and she never married. For someone who was “just a woman,” she ruled during what has become to be known as “The Golden Age” of England.

The next film is Stand and Deliver.

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