Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 13, 2023)
Oh, the siren song of the Oscar nomination! I must admit that the prized Best Picture nod often lures me to films I otherwise would skip.
The 1998 nominees became no exception. When the list came out in mid-February 1999, I'd already seen Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line.
Prior to their Oscar nominations, I’d not found a compelling reason to see the other three Best Picture contenders: Life Is Beautiful, eventual winner Shakespeare In Love and Elizabeth.
Eventually I saw all five of the nominated films, though Life Is Beautiful waited until it hit DVD. I headed to the theater for both Shakespeare and Elizabeth, and found myself surprisingly impressed by the latter.
Set in the mid-16th century, Queen Mary (Kathy Burke) dies and her half-sister Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) ascends to the throne. She takes over an England with all sorts of financial and social problems.
In addition, Elizabeth deals with threats to her sovereignty. Others conspire against her and attempt to thwart her reign. We follow all the concerns with which Elizabeth deals.
I admit I have an almost pathological dread of little art-house movies, as their abundant pretensions frequently drive me up the wall. But that didn't happen with Elizabeth, a surprisingly down to earth effort.
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, the film 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 Elizabeth compared to The Godfather, and that analogy makes a lot of sense. Both are fairly violent and both depict the ruthlessness that is required to remain in power.
As depicted here, Queen Elizabeth seems a lot like Michael Corleone. Both appear reluctant to become fully involved in the "family business," as it were, and both also seek to maintain a private life outside of that world.
By the end of the film, Elizabeth has become fully enmeshed in that lifestyle and is really a different person, just as happens to Michael.
I don't think Elizabeth approaches the high standards set by The Godfather, but it nonetheless delivers a fine film. On second viewing, Kapur's more flamboyant techniques seem much less noticeable and I could better appreciate how the camera work accentuates the story.
Kapur moves the story along at a crisp pace and he maintains a nice balance between the romantic side of Elizabeth’s life and her struggles with power.
Blanchett’s terrific lead performance acts as a key to the success of Elizabeth. I have nothing against Gwyneth Paltrow - she never received the acclaim she deserved for her phenomenal work in Se7en - but
Oscar robbed Cate.
Blanchett does a remarkable job as she portrays several different layers of personality in Elizabeth all at once and without any appearance of overt "acting" effort. This never becomes a showy performance, as instead, it seems real and grounded.
Blanchett could have easily pulled off Paltrow'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 Blanchett carries the film - it has enough strengths 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 Blanchett. That's probably a good thing because 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 feel that only two performers don’t live up to the standard of the rest. Joseph Fiennes seems wholly unable to capture any subtlety in his role as Elizabeth's lover, Robert Dudley.
He just appears to be a one-dimensional pretty boy to me, so any attempts he makes to come across as anything other than a trophy boy-toy ring hollow.
I also don'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, as 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 feel that the scenes with Cassel just seem like self-conscious attempts at comic relief, which means his character feels like he belongs 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 thought I’d seen much more of him.
Despite these misfires, Elizabeth succeeds well overall. It takes potentially stuffy historical matter and brings it to life in a vivid, exciting manner.