Queen of the screen

Film por­tray­als of El­iz­a­beth I say much more about their era than about hers, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Pauline Web­ber

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.

Pic­ture: BBC

Mighty monarch: Glenda Jack­son as the vir­gin queen in the 1971 minis­eries El­iz­a­beth R

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.