3 June 1999 | LeTiss
A very good try
As soccer legend Eric Cantona's former colleagues might say this is a film of two halves. Despite an intimidating opening scene, the first half soon settles down to establishing who everyone is - the bad guys drip malevolence, while the good guys dance in gay meadows. It is not until the second half that the politics and intrigue really get going.
The film opens in England, circa 1550s. The country is divided, half of the population pledging allegiance to the childless catholic Queen Mary who is dying, while the other half attempt to place their protestant liege, Elizabeth, on the throne.
Mary dies before providing an heir so the monarchy automatically passes to Elizabeth. However, she inherits a rebellious court keen to see her removed and a catholic monarch installed. Fortunately for Elizabeth, there are not enough candidates for the job. While, the evil Duke of Norfolk plots to put himself and Mary, Queen of Scots on the English throne, Elizabeth's supporters rush around trying to find her a suitable international king.
The crux comes when she declares she is only interested in her English lover, Lord Robert Dudley. When her enemies learn of this, they try to drive a wedge between them. And from this premise the real intrigue flows.
In terms of characterisation, the film scores some hits and some misses. Some curious casting decisions undermine a few of the characters - working class mainstay Kathy Burke moves to the opposite end of the social spectrum to play Queen Mary, Brit comic Angus Deayton has an unnecessary cameo, while Eric Cantona seems an odd choice, although his performance seems adequate.
As to the main characters, Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) is well charted from gamboling youth to ice-hard queen. The black loyalty of Sir Francis Wolsingham (Geoffrey Rush) is tested time and again and never found wanting, allowing him to grow from mistrusted bodyguard to Queen's adviser.
Unfortunately the Queen's enemies are so numerous it is difficult to focus on one. Michael Hirst, the writer, chooses the Duke of Norfolk as the chief villain but we never really learn why, or what his plans, beyond unseating Elizabeth, are. Christopher Ecclestone plays the Duke with the right amount of menace but we are never truly intimidated by his smouldering glare. Lord Robert (Joseph Fiennes) is an equally confused character. Is he guilty of the crimes he is accused of? Does he love the queen? Some of his behaviour suggests he does not, yet he constantly returns to her claiming he does. The uncertainty generated by Lord Robert is compounded by the fact that Joseph Fiennes does not belong in this film.
Beyond the characters, many of the films finest moments come in the form of the brightly coloured set pieces - when the court takes to the boat lake, the arrival of the french prince and the coronation. Some of the blacker scenes also serve very well - the aftermath of the battle, the plotting in the Vatican.
Despite the fine art direction, what we are eventually left with is a sumptuous, well made film let down by a slow start and a few undefined characters.