Queen of the screen
Film portrayals of Elizabeth I say much more about their era than about hers, writes
IF I were to list the titles of all the films, documentaries and television series that have been made about Elizabeth I or set in the period of her reign, I could quite easily fill the column centimetres at my disposal here. It is hard to think of another historical figure who has commanded so much celluloid and it’s easy to see why.
‘‘ She is one of the most charismatic people in history,’’ says historian Alison Weir, author of Elizabeth the Queen . ‘‘ She was a very feisty lady with a formidable intelligence who used her wits to survive. The Tudors were larger than life, very colourful, and it was a very dramatic period.’’
From the start of the silent era, actors have clamoured to assume her mantle. Sarah Bernhardt played her, in a swath of histrionics and white tulle, in Les Amours de la Reine Elisabeth ( 1912). Bette Davis took on the role with enthusiasm in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex ( 1939) with Errol Flynn as the ill- fated earl. Davis could not abide the swashbuckling Australian and she blamed him when critics panned the film. Nevertheless, she rallied and played the queen again in 1955. Flora Robson portrayed Elizabeth twice: in Fire over England ( 1937) and The Sea Hawk ( 1940), bringing dignity and presence to the role.
For Weir, there are only two worthy portrayals of England’s great queen: ‘‘ The best is Glenda Jackson in Elizabeth R. The script was based on quotes from original ( documents) and her performance and the script captured every facet of Elizabeth’s complex personality. The next best is Helen Mirren in the 2005 television series. But she is not quite as forceful as Jackson.’’
Elizabeth was instrumental in creating her own myth. The ageing virgin queen, bejewelled, powdered and rouged, encased in weighty, elaborate costumes, presenting herself to her subjects, is one of history’s most compelling and most poignant images. It is the version Quentin Crisp gives us in Sally Potter’s Orlando ( 1992). There are the caricatures, such as Miranda Richardson’s daffy royal in Blackadder. Even John Cleese had a go at her in a short film made during the 1970s.
Susan Doran, lecturer in history at Christ College, Oxford, suggests the fictional Elizabeth of film and TV has had to bear the weight of society’s ambivalence, even hostility, towards powerful women. In the past, Doran says, the anomaly of a ‘‘ non- married and seemingly virginal woman who moves in a male- dominated world and wields power there’’ has created problems for historians.
Filmmakers, who are able to take as much licence with history as they like, reflect the values and social mores of their time. In the inter- war years, women were expected to marry and to become homemakers. Those who did not caused consternation, particularly in the conservative Hollywood milieu. This is, after all, the era that gave us the femme fatale.
In Private Lives , Davis plays Elizabeth somewhere between a corporate executive and a frustrated schoolgirl. ‘‘ The Bette Davis version creates a woman whose lack of a sexual relationship has made her bitter and disturbed, sexually frustrated,’’ Doran says. She cites John Ford’s Mary of Scotland ( 1936), with Florence Eldridge in the role of Elizabeth, as a particularly good example of this kind of depiction. In Ford’s film, ‘‘ there is a striking difference between Mary, Queen of Scots, who is represented as a fulfilled mother and a loved woman, and Elizabeth, who is depicted as an unpleasant bitter character,’’ Doran says.
When Jackson took on the role in 1971 the feminist movement was taking shape and society’s values were shifting again. She was able to bring to the fore Elizabeth’s great strengths as a politician, tactician and intellectual. It is more difficult to generalise about our era.
In Shekhar Kapur’s new film, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, a sequel to his 1998 film Elizabeth , Cate Blanchett gives us a character much closer to the Davis and Eldridge model than the Jackson and Mirren one: often overwrought, riven by jealousy and brought to her knees by sexual desire ( this time for the adventurer Walter Raleigh). Kapur also mirrors Ford in his depiction of Mary, Queen of Scots.
‘‘ Both the Kapur films are a travesty,’’ Weir says. ‘‘ At least the Bette Davis film was a worthy attempt to depict Tudor England. There is no sense of that in Kapur.’’
Weir notes that the 16th century is ‘‘ the first period for which we have detailed records about private life’’ so that it is possible to render at least a passably authentic sketch of the world of the Tudors and, within limits, of the real Elizabeth. We know she was well educated, fluent in six languages, a poet and musician with a great love of history and philosophy.
‘‘ She did seem to have personal charisma,’’ says Doran, who in this respect at least, sees parallels with Diana, princess of Wales.
‘‘ She had what we would call the common touch, the ability to interact with courtiers and commoners. But that did not necessarily smooth her path. There is evidence that male courtiers and military men of her time had difficulty in their dealings with her as the boss. Filmmakers and to some extent historians recognise the misogynist world she lived in and can appreciate the way she used her power and her femininity to manipulate men.’’
Weir says: ‘‘ She was clever at keeping suitors at bay, some of them for more than a dozen years. The Earl of Leicester, who was probably her great love, was close to her for about 30 years. She was mercurial.
‘‘ She could swear like a trooper. There are just so many aspects to her character.’’
Doran says filmmakers appropriate versions of Elizabeth for their own age. She sees Elizabeth as having ‘‘ a mythical place in English history: the Amazon who threw off the threat from Spain, the supporter of Shakespeare and the great literary figures of the age, as we see in Shakespeare in Love . These are drawn on in all the films.’’
It is this mythical status that enables Kapur to take such creative licence. He gives us the warrior queen ( complete with shiny suit of armour, flowing hair and white charger) and we are given a glimpse of the astute diplomat and politician. But it is just a glimpse: Kapur has used Elizabeth’s story to make a conspiracy adventure film in The Da Vinci Code mode.
Despite the wealth of documentation, Doran hesitates to suggest we can know Elizabeth. ‘‘ She is elliptical. She is still enigmatic. What is the private Elizabeth and what is the public? How much of her rhetoric do we believe? We must make our own stories, our own narratives.’’
Perhaps this is the reason she has captivated generation after generation. She was an extraordinarily gifted and accomplished woman who survived against enormous odds to inherit a strife- ridden impoverished country that, during the 50 years of her reign, became a peaceful, affluent nation on the verge of establishing a great empire. Now, more than 400 years after her death, the US is hesitating to nominate a woman to run for the presidency.
‘‘ Elizabeth as a powerful woman has not been universally admired,’’ Doran observes.
‘‘ Her representation has not always been favourable. There is still a degree of fear about powerful women.’’
I put this idea to Weir, who disagrees. ‘‘ Strong women are wanted now,’’ she says. ‘‘ Books about them sell. There is a fascination with Margaret Thatcher. People like to see women as survivors in the world of men.’’
But both historians agree Elizabeth faced a dilemma shared by many modern women. She realised she could not be a successful ruler and a married woman. She made the sacrifice of family because she understood she could not have both.
Mighty monarch: Glenda Jackson as the virgin queen in the 1971 miniseries Elizabeth R