Here’s a quick look at the most recent crop of modern Elizabethan-era films (note: I am not including adaptations of Shakepeare’s many works, we’ll save that for another day):
Director: Shekhar Kapur
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Fiennes
Cate Blanchett stars as the young Elizabeth, ascending the throne in the wake of her half-sister Queen Mary’s death. The film looks at the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, following her as she adjusts to rule in the face of ambitious men seeking to marry her off or control her, Catholic opposition, intrigue and rebellion, attempted assassination and her purported romance with Lord Robert Dudley.
The film is, bluntly, gorgeous and sumptuous, with the sets, costuming and location shooting at numerous historic locales (Bamburgh Castle, Durham Cathedral, Bolton Castle, Haddon Hall and more) which gives the film a powerful verisimilitude. The performances are solidly terrific, particularly Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth growing into her power and position.
So how historically accurate is the film? The story conflates particular events, compresses and disorders others and in a number of cases, just seems to make stuff up wholesale in order to make a more gripping and tense storyline. Certain characters are jettisoned – one assumes for simplicity's sake. One egregious example is William Cecil (eventually to become Lord Burghley) whom history records as one of Elizabeth’s most stalwart and long-serving advisers. In the film, he is rapidly dismissed and shipped out to retirement in favour of the lean and hungry Geoffery Rush playing a superb version of Francis Walsingham, who actually served as Elizabeth’s foreign secretary and spymaster. Joseph Fiennes as Robert Dudley (Earl of Leicester) suffers a similar fate of having his character diverge considerably from historical reality which I won't outline here but is wholly inaccurate.
Overall Elizabeth is a superb film, albeit with a number of limitations on its historical accuracy.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
Director: Shekhar Kapur
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Clive Owen, Jordi Molla
This second film picks up in the mid-point (roughly) of Elizabeth’s reign. Played again by the returning Cate Blanchett, the film follows Elizabeth dealing with the machinations of court, the ongoing plots of the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots and the imperial designs of Phillip II of Spain. Geoffrey Rush returns as the long-suffering advisor/spymaster Francis Walsingham, while Clive Owen makes an appearance as the dashing Sir Walter Raleigh, alternately trying to convince Elizabeth to fund his plans for a colony in Virginia, charming her (and her handmaidens) and generally playing the roguish buccaneer to the hilt. The film covers the eventual trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, for treason in supporting an attempt on the Queen, and the subsequent attempt by Philip II to invade and conquer England with the Spanish Armada.
Again Shekhar Kapur does a superb job in leveraging some terrific historic shooting locations which give the film an exceptional look and feel. The costumes are lavish, and the film generally wonderful to watch, in particular the soaring camera angles give the the viewer a birds-eye view from above, showing off the brilliant costumes and the vaulting locations. The storyline and the acting seem somewhat less effective though Cate Blanchett is solidly in form playing a more austere and controlled Elizabeth, one that tends to watch with detachment and wry amusement, the endless dance of potential suitors. Viewers are left with a sense that she understands her role and her power better than any one else and she gives an excellent and believable performance.
History-wise, the accuracy of the film is questionable in both cause-and-effect. The film-makers re-paint the Babington plot (which is treated as a straight-up and deliberately failed assassination attempt) as a devious Spanish attempt to bait Walsingham and Elizabeth into executing Mary, thus giving them an excuse for launching the Armada. Similar to the first film, The Golden Age again conflates and combines key characters and events – in this case Sir Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake are stuffed into Clive Owen’s role and set out to destroy the Armada with fireships (which Elizabeth gets to conveniently watch cliffside after giving her historic speech at Tilbury). It made for more movie drama, but bad history…
Overall an enjoyable, if inaccurate bit of cinema!