One of the most famous biopics of the last two decades, Elizabeth (1998) sprang fully formed into the nascent online historical costuming community and set off intense debates about the sacrificing of historical accuracy on the altar of artistic vision. Everything from the chopped up timeline (a good 20 years is condensed into a two-hour flick without much regard for what happened when and to whom so long as it made for a salacious story) to the costumes (which, yes, you are no doubt aware by now are not in the least bit historically accurate, because vision) warranted lengthy and spirited polemicals from the historical costuming world. It was even the subject of our second podcast, nine years after its release, time having done little to dampen the angst regarding its flagrant manhandling of history. It even inaugurated one of our most used tags on this site, Playing Fast & Loose with History.
I recently went back to that podcast and gave it a listen, noting that right off the bat I admitted that I had softened somewhat on the film in the intervening years. Yes, it was Shekhar Kapur’s opinion that history was “boring.” Yes, this film is his homage to a powerful woman, without letting history get in the way of a good story. Yes, this was his vision.
But another 11 years have passed since we recorded that podcast, and my feelings about Elizabeth have only grown more complicated. Kapur released a sequel in that time, Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), which was hardly an improvement on the first film, historically speaking, and also had a 500% increase in ridiculous historically inaccurate headgear.
And now IMDB.com has listed a third film in pre-production, tentatively titled Elizabeth: The Dark Age. Which, if this quote by Kapur in Variety is anything to go by, is going to at least do us the honor of making up an entire storyline from whole cloth that is only tangentially based on the actual historical figure:
“It is a futuristic idea that I wrote about Elizabeth in the future, the state of the monarchy, and the state of civilization, based on a dystopian view of what will happen in Europe and what will happen in the U.K. and the western world,” says Kapur. “The recall of the monarchy, which was by then dead and gone. Why was the monarchy recalled and what was happening?”
“It is a futuristic idea of why this 18- or 19-year old girl, who actually is a prostitute, was recalled to the throne,” says Kapur.
There are a multitude of reasons for an historical purist to dislike Elizabeth and its companion, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, if nothing else for Kapur’s directorial hubris in dismissing history as anything of entertainment value. But at the end of the day, goddamn it, it is a great story and Cate Blanchett does some of her best work as the Virgin Queen. So, why do I always feel so dirty admitting that? Why do I feel as though I am betraying my historian blood by acknowledging that Elizabeth is, actually, a damn good movie?
1. It stars Cate Blanchett
Smart move on Kapur’s part. Casting Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth was probably the best thing to happen to it. Probably more suited physically and just in terms of sheer acting chops to play this role than any other actress of the last 20-whatever years, Blanchett nails it as the Virgin Queen.
2. The script is solid
It may make a heretic to say this, but the script is really very good. Even if it throws the history baby out with the bathwater. I think more purists would have taken the whole cafeteria-style approach to history a lot better had Kapur just not been all over the press announcing how boring he thought actual history was, and substituting his “improvements” everywhere.
3. Christopher Eccelston
4. Hell, the entire cast is amazing
5. The costumes don’t actually suck
Were it not for the fact that they are more reflective of gowns worn 30 years after the film is supposedly set (though, again, this is Shakur Kapur’s vision we are dealing with here and apparently, things like timelines are open for creative interpretation), I think we historical costume accuracy nuts would not have had such a collective meltdown over the costuming when the movie first premiered had Kapur and costume designer, Alexandra Byrne, not gone on the record with every major media outlet equating “historical accuracy” with “boring af.”
The fact is, the women’s costumes are gorgeous.
They’re just not historically accurate, but that in and of itself doesn’t mean they suck.
What did you think of Elizabeth (1998) when it first came out versus now? Share it with us in the comments!