A child born to royalty survives murderous palace intrigues and years later leads her country through darkness to greatness. It sounds like a melodrama, but surely the lessons of Elizabeth I’s rise and rule might sound relevant to potential senator Hillary Clinton or possible President Liddy Dole: duty over self, government as public passion, private passions sacrificed.
The Virgin Queen’s passage from carefree girl to sovereign is the crux of Elizabeth. The political wars she fought upon ascending to Britain’s throne in 1558 make for flashy, gripping filmmaking, but several other films dramatize her life more classically.
For back story, start a generation earlier — for as Elizabeth proclaims in several films, she is her ”father’s daughter,” and as Anne of the Thousand Days shows, she’s her mother’s as well. In the 1530s, Henry VIII (Richard Burton) is a sullen king who wants to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry the free-spirited Anne Boleyn (Genevieve Bujold). The film makes it clear that not just lust but the need for a male heir drives the King to distraction (Catherine’s sole living child was Princess Mary). Yet Anne is not easily won, nor is the papacy; to change his woman, Henry splits from Rome, forms the Church of England, and murders his opponents. Yet the only offspring Anne produces is redheaded, angelic Elizabeth, causing Henry to again want a trade-in — which is Anne’s death warrant.
This dazzling film of a Maxwell Anderson play gives Anne and the King’s earthy romance as much weight as its tragic denouement and expels the cliche of Henry as turkey-chomping boor. Burton’s sad eyes show how troubled his house is, and he’s visibly weakened by Bujold’s tempestuous, headstrong beauty, in courtship and in court. Bujold banks an inner fire whose embers ignite in Cate Blanchett’s performance nearly 30 years later.
In many ways, the 20-year-old princess at the start of Elizabeth is as lost as the 3-year-old at the end of Anne. The fiery, sexy directness Blanchett employs flattens any high-minded biographical stiffness; surrounded by duplicity, she’s still in command of all she surveys, save for her heart. Similarly, director Shekhar Kapur’s film isn’t dry history. Smoldering performances emerge from the shadows, notably Geoffrey Rush’s morally rotting counsel Walsingham.
Yet it’s Blanchett’s magnetic, Oscar-nominated turn that grounds the film. Her response to a dismissive French emissary shows her spark: She defers to him oh so slightly, then, with a cold gaze, denounces France’s alliance with Scotland’s Mary of Guise. Blanchett captures the stateliness and intellectual savvy that kept the Queen’s subjects faithful to her for more than four decades.
Though Elizabeth leaves the young queen bereft of her lover, Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), due to his treachery, Elizabeth, single for life, would have other affairs. In The Virgin Queen, England’s golden age becomes a candy-colored soap opera as Bette Davis’ shrill middle-aged monarch falls for bland ladder climber Sir Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd), who’s beholden to her but in love with young Beth Throckmorton (the mannequinlike Joan Collins). Raleigh wants ships, Elizabeth wants May-September romance, and the film squanders its love triangle, a real loss when one player is the feisty woman who declares, ”I am Elizabeth Tudor! Men have loved me…because I struck sparks from their minds!” Virgin Queen is based on fact (Raleigh was a favorite of the Queen’s and secretly married to Throckmorton), but all the pomp entombs an uninspired performance by Davis. In this, her second regal role, Davis is like Her Majesty Margo Channing.
Her first go around, 16 years earlier, was more rousing — even though in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, she played 15 years older. Here, the lioness in winter falls for the much younger Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn), who fights the Irish and then expects to be King. Elizabeth and Essex comes courtesy of another smart Maxwell Anderson play, plus the team behind the previous year’s Adventures of Robin Hood (director Michael Curtiz, composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Flynn, Olivia de Havilland). The gorgeous sets and costumed elegance are pure 1930s Warner Bros., and the film’s passions are as bold as its colors — Davis’ 63-year-old Queen is ardent (the actress was really 31); Flynn is suitably dashing. And, as in Anne, losing in love leads to the Tower of London.
Of course, what these films don’t address is Elizabeth’s love of the theater and affection for a ragamuffin playwright named Shakespeare. But that’s another Oscar-worthy story.
Virgin Queen: C-
Elizabeth and Essex: B