Film and Media

Elizabeth: Romantic Film Heroine or Sixteenth-Century Queen?

Carole Levin, April 1999

Presenting history on film in a way that is both historically accurate and dramatically satisfying can be a difficult task. Last year's Elizabeth, directed by Shekhar Kapur and starring Cate Blanchett, is the most recent attempt to dramatize the life of one of history's most interesting characters. Sometimes dramatic films must sacrifice historical accuracy to present the greater "truth" about a person or a time period or simply to make a satisfying story. Shakespeare's own history plays were filled with inaccuracies but are great drama, and Kenneth Branagh's version of Henry V beautifully recreates medieval politics and the horrors of war while presenting wonderful character development. Henry V works as both modern film and historical drama. Elizabeth, all too often, does not.

That events from throughout Elizabeth's reign are presented as occurring in the first five years is forgivable as dramatic license, but numerous made-up events and historical errors mar the film. It begins at the violent end of Mary I's reign, as the Catholic ruler has heretics burned in a violent effort to halt the Protestantism unleashed by her father Henry VIII. Though greatly at risk, Elizabeth survives her sister's reign to become queen and establish England as a Protestant nation. The film takes great liberties by compressing the political intrigues with members of her court and the conflicts with Scotland, France, and Spain from throughout her reign into the first five years.

The script appears most responsible for the film's failings. That it plays fast and loose with historical fact would be less egregious if it was at least good drama. But, alas, this is a historical drama that is neither historical nor dramatic. The plot is episodic and unfortunately often quite incoherent. The audience is presented with a young queen under threat, a threat that is being resolved at the end of the film. But throughout the film the threat is never very clear—was the threat from France, from Scotland, from Spain, or from the Pope? Was the villainous Duke of Norfolk indeed the next heir to the English throne? Anyone who knows 16th-century history well realizes the film is filled with inaccuracies—for those who don't, much of it is incomprehensible, as it really does not explain the political issues that faced Elizabeth at the beginning of her reign. Indeed, Kapur admitted that the plot was so complex even "he was occasionally unsure who was doing what to whom (or why)" (see Gemma Files, "Like a virgin: Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth, wooden teeth and all," Eye (November 5, 1998) at http://www.eye.net/eye/issue/issue_11.05.98/film/elizabeth.html).

But one of the film's greatest failings is that it does not present an accurate portrait of its title character. Today many people are interested in the concept of a strong, independent woman, and many of them may flock to the theater as a result, but unfortunately the film's character Elizabeth is not as interesting as many historians' depiction of the actual 16th-century monarch.

Elizabeth was a strong and fascinating woman, but the film rarely depicts her complexity or strength of character. She is weak and indecisive through much of the film, and though she claims to be "no man's Elizabeth," she seems dependent on Francis Walsingham (her master of spies) even at the end. This is a pity, as the film has some beautiful photography, stunning costumes, and occasional magnificent moments. The cast is impressive, especially its star; Cate Blanchett looks just right as the young Elizabeth and has tremendous presence. She could have been truly excellent with a better script and better direction.

A Portrait of Weakness

Many historians would argue that in 1558 when Elizabeth became queen at age 25 she was already adept at self-preservation, effective at court intrigue, and well aware of the necessity of being loved by her people. But at the beginning, the film characterizes Elizabeth as very young and innocent—more like a 16- year-old than an adult. Early in the film there are powerful moments of Elizabeth in the Tower of London saying to her women companions, "tonight I think I am going to die." She poignantly begs her sister Mary not to kill her, and expresses her commitment to freedom of conscience. Once she is queen, however, she often seems more interested in performing the latest dances at court than with the more serious aspects of rule. Though she states her concern for her people, we do not have scenes with Elizabeth beyond the court that would emphasize this.

The comparison to the strong, sexually confident warrior queen Mary of Guise (the regent of Scotland) is particularly striking. In one scene, we see Mary on the battlefield in armor sending a young boy back to Elizabeth; his English blood stains her French colors. This is contrasted with Elizabeth prostrate before the shrouded portrait of her father Henry VIII, and weeping because the English sent boys to fight in Scotland had been slaughtered because there were no reinforcements. Emotionally at that moment, Mary is a far more attractive queen to the audience than Elizabeth.

It is no surprise then that the male characters do not take her seriously as queen either. Her principal secretary, William Cecil, lectures her as if she were a schoolgirl. The Duke of Norfolk marches into her bedchamber to wake her up and inform her she had better get to the council meeting as there is a war with Scotland going on.

Later, Walsingham explains to the young queen that the bishops, opposed to another break with Rome, preached from the pulpits against her and the war. All this is not only historically extremely questionable, but weakens the character Elizabeth. Similarly, we see Elizabeth successfully get the Act of Uniformity through Parliament, but her role in this accomplishment is under cut by Walsingham, who locked up six bishops, and only releases them after the vote, telling them uniformity passed by five votes. The camera panning over the six bishops produces audience laughs but does not show us an effective queen.

Toward the end of the film (in complete variance with historical fact) Elizabeth sends Cecil into retirement, telling him that she has listened to him but now will listen only to herself. In fact, she is dependent on the machinations of Walsingham throughout the film. The sinister Walsingham, whom we first see slitting the throat of a boy who may have been his lover and who certainly was bribed to kill him, demonstrates how a man may act immorally for the good of his queen and country. Toward the end of the film Walsingham travels to Scotland to seduce and then poison Elizabeth's rival, Mary of Guise (again an entirely invented sequence of events).

The film's prime plot device—the romance between Robert Dudley (well played by Joseph Fiennes) and Elizabeth just reinforces the idea of as a very weak and flighty character who often showed terrible judgment. She sleeps with Dudley where all her ladies-in-waiting could see her; later they have a lover's spat in front of her court and the French ambassador. Certainly the long and emotionally complex relationship between Elizabeth and Dudley could be a potentially effective hook. But the relationship is never fully explored or satisfactorily explained.

Throughout the film, Robert's motivation is difficult to follow. We see him as protective and in love with Elizabeth during the dangerous days of her sister Mary's reign. We see his concern that once Elizabeth is queen she will be less close to him. He continually proposes to her, which seems to please Elizabeth, even though as the young queen enjoying all the perks of queenship she cannot quite make up her mind to marry him. Then well into the film, Cecil marches into Elizabeth's bedroom, tells her all the world knows she fornicates with Lord Robert, and adds that she cannot marry him. The audience and Elizabeth suddenly learn that Robert is already married. But this marriage is never explained and only referred to later when Elizabeth, asks Robert if he loves his wife. Robert replies that he loves only "his" Elizabeth. In a dramatically effective moment Elizabeth responds that she is no man's Elizabeth and proclaims, "I will have one mistress here and no master." Yet for all too much of the film Elizabeth is not the one mistress, which hardly suggests being self-confident and in control.

The historical Robert Dudley's first marriage to Amy Robsart and Elizabeth's response is actually far more interesting than the presentation in the film. Elizabeth knew that Robert was married to Amy and did not care. Amy lived in the country away from court, ill with breast cancer, while Elizabeth and Robert were together at court. Everyone whispered that Elizabeth was only waiting for Amy to die so that she might marry Robert. Whether Elizabeth could ever have brought herself to marry is unclear. But less than two years into the reign Amy, instead of dying peaceably in bed, was found dead at the bottom of some stairs with her neck broken. No one has ever been sure if it was murder, suicide, or simply an accident, as the coroner's verdict proclaimed. But the scandal was horrific and many were afraid that if Elizabeth married Robert, she would, as the Spanish ambassador suggests, go to bed as queen and wake up as plain mistress Dudley. Elizabeth never married Dudley, but she kept him at court even through other courtships, other favorites, and his secret second marriage 20 years into her reign. Whatever Dudley's shortcomings, he would never have been involved in a plot of treason against her.

Nevertheless, at the end of the film Dudley is one of the many traitors Walsingham lists for his queen. In one of her rare disagreements with Walsingham, Elizabeth refuses to have Robert executed, but asks him why he betrayed her. If his response explains it to Elizabeth, it hardly clarifies his motivation for the audience: "It is no easy thing to be loved by the queen, it would corrupt the soul of any man. Now kill me." Elizabeth decides to keep him alive "to remind me how close I came to danger."

Violence to History

Dudley is one of the few who escape. In a particularly gratuitous scene, one of Walsingham's spies is beaten to death by the priest John Ballard, whom we later see being tortured. Norfolk's mistress betrays him and he is executed along with Arundel. The Spanish ambassador is murdered. Walsingham also lists Sussex and Gardiner as traitors. That the historical facts are again in error—Gardiner was long dead, Sussex was never a traitor, Arundel was simply placed under house arrest for a year for his part in the Ridolfi Plot of 1571, the Spanish ambassador was only expelled from England—seems less problematic than the argument that killing everyone is the secret for successful rule.

At the close of the film the threats against Elizabeth and the way she resolved them are not carefully explicated either except that it ends in a bloodbath. That the plot was so hard to follow might lead an unwary theatergoer to conclude for this very reason that all these various episodes were what actually happened, and the need for historical accuracy meant the sacrifice of a coherent plot line. But the muddle of events, many of them invented, have little to do with the early reign of Elizabeth. Perhaps Shakur and writer Michael Hirst thought the extreme violence made up for the lack of clarity.

The film's violent nature is evident from the beginning, as it begins with the burning of a heretic as ordered by Mary I. The woman about to be burned is shown having all her hair cut off first. The symbolic significance of the shorn head is made clear at the end in a scene between Elizabeth and Walsingham, who has rid England of so many enemies with graphic scenes of murder, torture, and beheadings, it is unclear who is left for her to rule. Elizabeth, looking up at a statue of the Virgin Mary, asks Walsingham why the English people love the Mother of God and not their queen—"Must I be made of stone?" Walsingham responds that all men must have something to look up to, to touch the divine here on earth. Elizabeth muses of the Virgin Mary that she had such power over men's hearts. Walsingham responds suggestively, "They've found nothing to replace her." We then see her having her hair cut off like a woman joining a convent. From heretic burning to queen, the loss of hair represents a loss of one part of the self. Elizabeth tells her confidant Kat Ashley, "Kat, I have become a virgin." She emerges to the court, painted white like a statue; instead of slouching as she had throughout the film, she is very stiff. To be a successful queen, she must give up her emotional range and sensuality.

The film thus ends with Elizabeth reclaiming her virginity and turning herself into stone, painted white, a living statue of the Virgin to replace the Virgin Mary. In certain ways the Elizabeth of the film appears to be a modern woman trying to figure out if she can have it all, or if she must give up love to be successful. Showing a beautiful but flighty woman, the center of attention, who grows into the position, behind the film's Elizabeth may stand the ghost of Princess Diana and the fascination people today have for a royal romantic heroine. The screen flashes with the information that the next 40 years of Elizabeth's reign were very successful, and that while she never saw Robert in private again she died saying his name. Is the message that a woman cannot be successful both politically and emotionally? If, as the film suggests, she died with Robert's name on her lips, is it saying the cost for being successful was too high? It is unfortunate that we are told that Elizabeth was successful but do not have much opportunity to see it.

Beautifully photographed, with an impressive cast, the film Elizabeth can be compelling to watch but felt like a missed opportunity. I wish the script had done a better job of presenting a highly complex and fascinating queen. If seeing the film makes the audience want to learn more about the 16th-century Queen Elizabeth, however, it will still have served a good purpose.

—Carole Levin is professor of history at the University of Nebraska and the author of The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power. She wants to express her appreciation to those who viewed the film with her and also all who shared ideas about it, particularly the members of the Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program at the University of Nebraska and their friends. She thanks as well Rohana Kenin, Bill Shields, and Robert Polito for their helpful ideas and Jo Margaret Mano for all her help and support.