Elizabeth (1998): 20 Years on and a Few More Thoughts

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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.

Joseph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth (1998)

Joseph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth (1998)

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.

This is what I see in my head whenever anyone mentions “artistic vision,” btw.

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.

Mmmm. Tacos.

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.

Shakur then announced that the part of Elizabeth I will be cast as a dinosaur riding a bicycle. Vision, you guys.

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.

Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I

 

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.

The “rehearsal scene” is one of my favorite parts of this film.

 

3. Christopher Eccelston

Enough said.

 

4. Hell, the entire cast is amazing

Fanny Ardent as Mary of Guise

Geoffrey Rush, as Walsingham

John Gielgud, as the Pope

Daniel Craig, as John Ballard

And of course, Joseph Fiennes at peak bodice-rippy heartthrob

 

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.

I mean, look at this dress. It’s a pretty solid interpretation of a 1560s gown.

And even though they’re lacking codpieces, at least all the men are wearing trunkhose, unlike the weird-ass saddlebags from a certain more recent film about this period.

Legitimately one of the better Mary Tudor costumes on film in the last 20 years. There’s very little I can quibble with about any of it.

 

What did you think of Elizabeth (1998) when it first came out versus now? Share it with us in the comments!

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Website

Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

22 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    I didn’t hate it. The costumes were off but pretty and the Two Good Things were Blanchett and Fuentes. The history or lack thereof had me cringing.

    Best costume IMHO was the coronation gown and robes.

    Comparing this to the Mirren miniseries and the wonderful Glenda Jackson Elizabeth R, isn’t really a comparison. The two had compelling history and Elizabeth’s costumes in the first were based on portraits.

    Reply
  2. Katie

    My feeling, now and at the time, is that this is an excellent fantasy movie. I’ve always kind of suspected that Kapur actually wanted to do a fantasy film, and that someone at the studio decided it would sell better as a “biopic”. If Kapur had instead done what George RR Martin did, which was to set his historically based fantasy in a made up kingdom and filed the names and identifying details off of the characters, I think that everyone would have relaxed and enjoyed the film.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      One of these days I will have to dig into my theory that what Kapur actually wanted to do with this film, whether or not he knew it, was to make a screen version of Michael Moorcock’s novel Gloriana, which was like an alternate universe version of QEI sort of loosely based on The Faerie Queen if it were a dark fantasy bodice-ripper pulp paperback with pretensions.

      Reply
  3. ladylavinia1932

    My opinion of this movie is not as high as it was 21 years ago. However, the historical accuracy or lack of it did annoy me every now and then. Still does. And although I enjoyed Blanchett’s performance, there were moments when it seemed a bit too mannered for my tastes. However, I still continued to enjoy Geoffrey Rush’s performance. As for the costumes . . . pretty.

    Reply
  4. Rhonda Stannard

    I thought Cate Blanchett was amazing in it and still haven’t gotten over the fact that Gwyneth Paltrow won the Oscar for her role in Shakespeare in Love instead of Cate that year.

    Reply
    • Terry Flowers

      Me too. Blanchett was robbed. In fact, that was the final straw in my “oscars are rigged’ thinking. Haven’t paid attention since.

      For me, I’m just pathetically happy when a fictional movie or tv show is somewhat accurate. I save my ire for documentaries that get it wrong.

      Reply
    • ljones1966

      I’m sorry, but I wasn’t pushing for Blanchett. I can think of some of her later performances that I found a bit more impressive. She was a bit too mannered and perhaps a little twitchy. Come to think of it, I had the same problem in “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”.

      Reply
  5. Jean

    All of your wonderful commentary, and all I can think of is to thank you for the Kevin Smith flashback.

    Reply
    • Rosemary

      Kevin Smith was awesome, I can’t believe it’s been 17 years since he passed :( He’s still loved here in NZ :)

      Reply
  6. eadon216

    I can’t hate on it. Elizabeth was my gateway drug into Tudor history. Well…that coupled with The Other Boleyn Girl book.

    Reply
  7. Charity

    I love it. It chaps my historical backside, but it’s gorgeous, Cate is an amazing Elizabeth (she may be my favorite, though it’s hard to choose with so many awesome actresses in the role, from Bette Davis to Helen Mirren), and it’s pure melodrama. I just watch it for the hell of it, and don’t bother grinding my teeth over it too much. The more recent MQoS made me madder. :P

    Reply
  8. M.E. Lawrence

    I have no use for directors who dismiss history as “boring,” given that historical fact is usually weirder, and more fun, that anything a modern screenwriter could invent. So I disliked much of “Elizabeth.” But Cate was close to perfect as young E. Tudor (as was Mirren as the older E). That early scene where she’s dancing with her ladies–wondrous. And Rush as Walsingham! Great Tudor-portrait face–Irons as Dudley had that, too.

    (I was trying to explain all this to my 20-something stepdaughter at the time, who just didn’t get why chronology could be as important as, yes, “vision.”)

    Reply
  9. Bonnie-Lynn Nadzeika

    I knew nothing about Elizabeth I when I saw this movie so I credit it with making me interested enough to learn the real story. I also knew nothing about historic costume and for me the wardrobe went well with the characters.

    Reply
  10. Katie O'Donnell

    I saw this for the first time in college a few years ago and liked it, but for some reason with each successive viewing I’ve liked it less and less. I don’t know why! Normally I love re-watching movies over and over but for me it just doesn’t hold up to re-watch.

    Reply
  11. Amy

    Yes, the costumes, including the frolicking ladies with their bathing pageant swags . . . ew, BUT what slapped me in the face was FREAKING MOZART’S REQUIEM for the closing credits. MOZART!!!!! UMMM!!!!!! With all the absolutely gorgeous period music that could have been chosen they went for something not only WAY outta context but also an overused excerpt. Cate Blanchett and the other cast members do save this.

    Reply
  12. mjsamuelson

    Has been ages since I watched it, but I remember being very upset with the Oscars that year, for awarding Paltrow over Blanchett (no matter what you think about the historical accuracy of either film, Cate Blanchett was phenomenal). The Best Picture race wasn’t much better, and again, Elizabeth, even with all the historical mess, is a really solid film.

    All these years later, I’m more apt to notice and call out historical issues, so a fresh rewatch would probably go badly from that angle. And I feel like Kapur was setting the precedent for all Elizabethan and 16th century films and shows from that point forward – many that came before were problematic, but not with the devil-may-care attitude that he espoused and appears to have passed on.

    Reply
  13. SarahV

    I remember being utterly enthralled by Marie de Guise and thought she could be the center of her on fantastic movie. Her in her armoured cuirass but full skirts and artful scarf on teh battlefield was just too, too fabulous. Historically ridiculous, to be sure, but still.

    One of these days, Mary I will get a movie that does her story justice. Yes, I know she was reactionary and cruel and pretty much one of the world’s greatest female tyrants, but she must have been so, so emotionally and psychologically fucked up by her upbringing and her asshole father.

    Reply
  14. Amanda

    I watched Elizabeth and The Golden Age about a month ago and while I enjoyed watching some aspects overall I found it really hard to get into. Neither of them really did a great job holding my attention. One of the big reasons for tgat being that they really done Cecil dirty.

    I knew I KNEW as soon as I saw how they threw him away in the first one, how much it would RUIN the sequel because it messed up the flow of the story.

    That fact that Cecil was only JUST older than Elizabeth when she took the throne is really important, I think. In a lot of ways he really was her only actual friend and the only person she fully trusted. I think they had a fascinating relationship and the MQoS storyline suffered for it because just watching Elizabeth pace around shouting about how she wanted it stopped was somuch less interesting than the actual backlash of her finding out that Cecil had completely ignored an order she sent him and just executed mary any way. Cate did a fantastic job, but she would have done even better with a script that respected history.

    Reply
  15. ljones1966

    Honestly? I would rather stick to watching the likes of Glenda Jackson, Flora Robson and Helen Mirren portray Queen Bess. They’re not as twitchy. On the other hand, I feel that both Blanchett and Bette Davis were.

    Reply
  16. Sushi

    I never watch any movie starring Joseph Fiennes. There’s something really sleazy about him. I just can’t accept him as a love interest

    Reply
  17. Gill

    Hated it then and since – but I grew up on Glenda Jackson. Above all, my beloved Durham Cathedral, wonderful NORMAN building, used as a Renaissance palace? I don’t think so.

    Reply

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