The thesis of Elizabeth, written by Michael Hirst and directed by
Shekhar Kapur, is very simple— like the people that the thesis is
ultimately about. These are the credulous peasants of the middle ages who are
supposed to have worshiped the Virgin Mary. By the 16th century, the Catholic
Church as headed by Sir John Gielgud (it is a perfect postmodern joke to cast
him as a sinister Pope sending fanatical priests to England to assassinate the
Queen), had become so corrupt that no decent person could be connected with it.
Or at least no decent person in this movie is. All the Catholics are ugly or
deformed, cruel and ruthless. So what is an enlightened agnostic rationalist,
like Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) to do? He can set up a secret police
organization, for one thing, fighting fire with fire; he can be as ruthless and
cruel as his papist enemies. But what has he got to offer those credulous
peasants? Twenty or thirty years ago he would have come up with the answer
himself, but feminist orthodoxy means that his puppet, Queen Elizabeth I (Cate
Blanchette) must invent herself as the new Blessed Virgin for her people to

Walsingham, it’s true, gives her
the hint. “All men need something
greater than themselves to look up to and
worship,” he tells her.
“They must be able to touch the divine
here on earth. . .” The climax of the
film is therefore her announcement, after a youthful penchant for
as Lord Burghley (Richard Attenborough) quaintly puts it, that
“I have become a
virgin!” Naturally this is bad news
for her inamorata, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes), who thus
aligns himself with the suit of the King of Spain, Philip II. Philip had been
married to Liz’s ugly sister, Mary (Kathy Burke), and is himself far from
prepossessing in the brief glimpse we catch of him. Elizabeth’s other principal
suitor, the Duc d’Anjou, likes attending orgies while dressed in women’s clothes
(the best moment in the movie is when Elizabeth catches him at it and he
flounces out to greet her, exclaiming petulantly, “What?”) while Dudley
himself is a coxcomb and a popinjay and impossible to like. All things
considered, the film makes a career as a virgin look pretty attractive.

Elizabeth, like Walsingham, is of no particular faith. To her Catholic
interrogators when she is imprisoned in the Tower during Mary’s reign she says:
“I ask you why we must tear ourselves
apart for this small question of religion. Catholic? Protestant? We all believe
in God.”

To which the evil looking Catholic clergyman says:
“There is only one true religion. The
other: heresy.”

Now we may not know exactly what was said by the future queen and her
persecutors on this occasion, but we can be pretty sure that what was not
said was that the question of religion was a small one. Certainly, Elizabeth
never behaved for a moment as if it were a small one to her, once she came to
the throne. As so often before (I get tired of pointing it out), Hollywood
remakes the past in the image of the late 20th century—for which religion
is a small question—and so cheats its audience out of the
experience of something genuinely new and unfamiliar. The audience, of course,
having been educated (to use the term loosely) on the same principle, doesn’t
know the difference and is left to walk away congratulating itself on its
superiority to its ancestors, all of whom apart from a few far-seeing
progressives like Elizabeth and Walsingham, behaved so incomprehensibly

In fact, the foolishness is all on the side of the filmmakers. A few of the
film’s historical howlers and anachronisms follows.

Elizabeth when still a young princess of 16 is depicted frolicking in a
meadow with some female attendants and the Studly Dudley but no chaperone, no

On succeeding to the throne, word is received that the treasury is empty, the
navy enfeebled, the army disbanded. Elizabeth doesn’t see the problem.
“I have no desire to go to war,
Sir,” she says. (As Trotsky said when
told that the Russian people weren’t interested in war: “No, but war is
interested in them.”)

Urged to marry, Elizabeth replies anticipating Gloria Steinem:
don’t see why a woman need marry at

Giggling ladies-in-waiting outside the
Queen’s chamber watch as she hops in
bed with Dudley. Burghley says: “Her
majesty’s body and person are no
longer her own property; they belong to the
state.” More giggling and tittering.

The Queen’s adviser Arundell says, regarding the Franco-Scottish threat:
“War is a sin, but sometimes a
necessary one.”

In addition it is merely vulgar self-indulgence to present a self-conscious
echo of The Godfather as all the chief Catholics and conspirators are
killed or arrested while Elizabeth is pictured in prayer. But then why should
this sequence be any different from the rest of the movie?

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