Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Special Edition DVD
Polygram, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC] & Dolby Surround, subtitles: Spanish & French, single side-dual layer, 20 chapters, rated R, 123 min., $34.95, street date 5/25/99.
Academy Awards: Winner of Best Makeup-Jenny Shircore, Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress-Cate Blanchett, Best Cinematographer-Remi Adefarasin, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design-Alexandra Byrne, Best Original Dramatic Score-David Hirschfelder, 1999.
Directed by Shekhar Kapur. Starring Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Joseph Fiennes, Richard Attenborough, Christopher Eccleston, Jamie Foreman.
A remarkable cast in a thriller of intrigue and treachery set in the court of one of history's greatest monarchs. Elizabeth is a mesmerizing production set amidst the pomp and pageantry of England's royal court, at a time when the country is wracked by bloody internal strife. Young Queen Elizabeth Tudor must ignore her private passions and weigh her counsel carefully if she is to keep her crown--and her head.
Oh, the siren song of the Oscar nomination! I must admit that the prized Best Picture nomination has frequently lured me to see films I otherwise most definitely would have let slip past me.
The 1998 nominees were no exception. When the list came out in mid-February, I'd already seen Saving Private Ryan (had its moments) and The Thin Red Line (dreadful). The other three picks - Life Is Beautiful, Elizabeth, and Shakespeare In Love - had not yet presented me with sufficient evidence to warrant my interest.
The Best Picture nomination changed the situation for the latter two releases. (I don't know WHAT could have enticed me to see Life Is Beautiful - I've found Roberto Benigni unbearable for years!) Despite all the critic gushing, I thought Shakespeare In Love was nothing special; I saw it as nothing more than a typical romantic comedy that featured a gimmick (hey, that's not some ordinary Joe - that's SHAKESPEARE!) and I found it to be decent, but nothing special.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, surprised me. I have an almost pathological dread of little art-house movies; their abundant pretensions frequently drive me up the wall. But that didn't happen with Elizabeth. Oh, it offers its fair share of overtly "arty" techniques - director Shekhar Kapur seems inordinately fond of dramatic overhead "top down" shots and of various funky lens filters - but overall it comes across as a well-told rendition of a gripping story.
One mistake I made before I saw the film was to assume that it would be some touchy-feely "chick flick." Nothing could be farther from the truth. I later heard it compared to The Godfather, and that analogue makes a lot of sense. Both are fairly violent and each depicts the ruthlessness that is required to retain one's power.
Queen Elizabeth, as depicted here, is a lot like Michael Corleone, in that she seems similarly reluctant to become fully involved in the "family business," as it were, and she also seeks to maintain a private life outside of that world. By the end of the film, she has become fully enmeshed in that lifestyle and is really a different person, just as happened to Michael.
I don't think Elizabeth really approaches the standard set by The Godfather, but it's nonetheless a very fine film. On second viewing, Kapur's more flamboyant techniques seemed much less noticeable and I was better able to appreciate how the camera work accentuated the story. He moves the story along at a crisp pace and he maintains a nice balance between the romantic side of her life and her struggles with power (both of which frequently become intertwined, actually).
Key to the success of Elizabeth is the terrific portrayal of the queen by Cate Blanchett. Hey, I have nothing against Gwyneth Paltrow - she never received the acclaim she deserved for her phenomenal work in Seven - but Oscar robbed Cate. She does a remarkable job of portraying several different layers of personality in Elizabeth all at once and without any appearance of overt "acting" effort. This is not a showy performance, for the most part; instead, it seems very real and grounded. Cate could have easily pulled off Gwyneth's role in Shakespeare In Love, but the reverse would not be true. Without a strong actress as Elizabeth, this movie would have tanked; I can't say that Cate carries the film - it has enough strength on its own - but she certainly makes it a much greater success than it otherwise could have been.
The supporting actors generally offer solid performances, although none rival Cate's. That's probably a good thing; she should remain the focus, and had another actor's work diminished hers, the film would have suffered. While most of the supporting cast do well, probably the best of the bunch are Christopher Eccleston, who brings a subtle overtone of menace to his role as the Duke of Norfolk, and Geoffrey Rush, who quietly insinuates himself into a position of power as Sir Francis Walsingham.
In regard to the acting, I felt that only two performers weren't up to the standard of the rest. Joseph Fiennes seemed wholly unable to capture any subtlety in his role as Elizabeth's lover, Robert Dudley. He just appeared to be a one-dimensional pretty boy to me; any attempts he made to come across as anything other than a trophy boy-toy rang hollow. (By the way, guess there's no chance Fiennes will get typecast in romantic Elizabethan era roles, is there? Elizabeth and Shakespeare In Love back to back. Hey Joe - it's almost the 21st century - get used to it!)
I also didn't much care for the flamboyant excesses of Vincent Cassel as Duc D'Anjou. In this case, however, I lay most of the blame on the director; I have the feeling that Kapur probably egged on Cassel to be so over the top. For all I know, Cassel's performance may be historically accurate, and I must admit that it achieves its goal of demonstrating the ludicrous extremes toward which her advisors pushed Elizabeth to marry. However, I felt that the scenes with Cassel just seemed like self-conscious attempts at comic relief; his character appeared like he belonged in a different movie. The second time I watched Elizabeth, I was interested to note how little time Cassel actually spends on screen; his character so disrupts the flow of the film that I had remembered seeing much more of him.
Despite these two significant misfires, Elizabeth nonetheless succeeds tremendously well overall. As does the terrific DVD release of the film from Polygram. It's not the best DVD I've ever seen, but it's excellent by any standard. DVD newsgroup scuttlebutt says that the DVD's image appears soft. DVD newsgroup scuttlebutt's wrong. Elizabeth offers a simply outstanding image from start to finish. Any signs of softness appear that way due to the director's intent - remember my comment about all the wacky filters? I felt that this DVD portrayed the original image about as well as could be imagined within our current video constraints. The picture looks consistently crisp and clean, and the colors - of which a wide variety abound - seem tremendously rich and bold. This is probably another good title to use to demonstrate DVD's capacity for color reproduction; it's not quite as showy as Austin Powers or What Dreams May Come, but it displays its wide palette well.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix of Elizabeth offers a surprisingly robust sonic experience. Another of my art-house assumptions was that this film's soundtrack would not be up to snuff with the fare meant for a more "widespread" audience. Again, I was wrong. No, it's not Twister, but Elizabeth makes fine use of the rear channels through the reproduction of music and a surprisingly high number of ambient effects. Hell, it even made me jump a few times! Overall, the tone quality of the mix also seems satisfying, as all different elements sound accurate and natural.
The DVD of Elizabeth doesn't skimp on the supplemental materials either. Most prominent among these is the fine audio commentary from Kapur. He discusses a satisfying mix of topics and spreads his time neatly among technical aspects of making the film, explorations of his intentions, and historical background. The information he relates greatly adds to the experience of watching the film, which is the point of an audio commentary. This track offers a few too many gaps, but it still works very well.
(You won't hear about this in the audio commentary, but I think the man has a Batman fetish. Damn if those "top down" shots didn't look just like a bit from the start of that film; what with all their flowing cloaks and capes swirling about, the characters here look just like Batman strutting through the night! Plus, there's also a recurring musical theme that sounds EXACTLY like one used in Batman Returns. Okay, maybe I'm just nuts, but I still found the similarities interesting.)
This DVD also includes two separate "Making of..." features. The more substantial of them runs for about 25 minutes and it mainly offers interviews with the participants interspersed with clips from the film. A few too many clips, for my liking; these snippets are fine if they're used to demonstrate an aspect of the movie that's being discussed, but for the most part, they seem to be here just to take up space. Without the clips, I'd guess that this feature would only last 12 to 15 minutes. Overall, it's an okay documentary, but it adds little that we didn't already learn from Kapur's commentary.
Even less can be said for the six minute featurette. Essentially, this is a glorified trailer, albeit an effective one. It offers little that we didn't already receive from the commentary and the longer documentary, although the featurette is the only one that shows any behind the scenes footage from the set; it's very brief, but at least it's something.
In addition, the Elizabeth DVD includes some of the old standbys: we get two trailers, some more detailed than usual cast and director biographies, and a decent photo gallery. Also, this DVD boasts one of the best booklets I've yet seen. It includes photos of the actors and very brief biographies of them, a short summation of Elizabeth's childhood and adolescence, and some details about the various location used to shoot the film. I especially liked that last aspect of the booklet; as someone who will visit England later this year, I may actually try to visit some of the sites. It's an unusually well-done booklet.
While it's not unusually well-done, the DVD of Elizabeth stands out as a fine example of what can be done with the format. From the fantastic picture, solid audio, and strong complement of extras, this is a very good DVD on all fronts. Its MSRP of $35 makes it a little pricey, but unlike the bare-bones releases some studios offer at that price (hello Disney!) this one gives you enough bang for the buck.
Current as of 5/31/99
Official Site--Not surprisingly, the site offers a brief historical overview of Elizabeth's ascension to the throne and reign. There're also some decent information on the production and a game to uncover the traitor in the court.