Political Film Review #39

From State and Local Censorship to Ratings: Substantive Rationality, Political Entrepreneurship, and Sex in the Movies, written by Richard A. Brisbin, Jr., of the University of West Virginia, is the latest publication in the Political Film Society’s Working Paper Series. To obtain a copy, contact the Political Film Society’s website.

Many films have been made about Queen Elizabeth. Our images have perhaps already been shaped by the portrayal of Bette Davis, who made the queen out to be almost a tough Lesbian. Along comes sensitive Cate Blanchett, who shows how an unprepared not-so-virgin princess achieved maturity as a queen through bitter experience. In Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth: The Virgin Queen, which was released in 1998, we find intrigue and betrayal in which the various interests represented at the court are selfish, shortsighted, and vain. In the beginning of the film, the year 1554, Elizabeth is imprisoned, refuses to renounce Protestantism, but the dying queen mother, a Catholic, allows her to live. After Elizabeth ascends to the throne in 1558, she is welcomed as a possible advocate for various interests at the court and nearly overthrown because of the rivalries. But the factions at the court are contradictory and do not have the greater interests of the country at heart. After her Bay of Pigs, in which English youth are cannon fodder in a battle with Scotland, she comes to the realization that her advisers are treacherous fools. Ultimately, she decides upon a “Saturday night massacre,” in which all her self-centered advisers are fired. Her awareness that the national interest must prevail over petty court politics comes slowly but is firm in the end. Although most biographers believe that she was fickle in bestowing favors, prejudiced, and vacillating, we see little of this aspect in the film. The film also reinvents history: Mary of Guise died of dropsy, Dudley’s marriage was well known, Walsingham became a significant figure considerably later in Elizabeth’s reign, and Norfolk was not arrested until 1571, as the events have been rearranged for dramatic purposes. We see that she used contemplation of marriage with the French and Spanish courts as means for postponing war until England was strong enough to become a real power in Europe. We leave the theatre, with a tear or two forming on our cheeks, as we realize how her idealism and desire for personal (and even sexual) happiness had to be abandoned for the good of her country and her own conscience. The best part of the film is how this personal transformation develops step by step. We reflect that politicians, including former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whom the film seems to glorify subliminally, are inevitably caught with the choice of either pandering to special or personal interests or rising above them. Elizabeth’s choice of career over family and sensuality is an important feminist theme of our times but not common in the sixteenth century, when women were considered unfit to rule. Was Elizabeth the first feminist? Perhaps so, but the film tells both men and women what is required for political statesmanship, though the tagline of the film lectures “Absolute power demands absolute loyalty,” indicating perhaps that those who made the film should look again at the feminist message disseminated so eloquently. MH
In the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, Queen Elizabeth is played by Judi Dench, who won an Oscar® for best supporting actress. The premise of the film is much less serious than Elizabeth: The Virgin Queen, namely, that Shakespeare must have written love sonnets and the play Romeo and Juliet because he was himself in love at the time. Very little is known about Shakespeare, so the film is pure fantasy, with a lot of feel-good twists and turns. However, the law at the time prevented women from acting in a public performance. One star in the film was a woman secretly dressed as a man in order to play a part in the first production of Romeo and Juliet. When authorities find out, the dramatic troupe is unable to proceed. Ultimately, Shakespeare’s lover (Gwyneth Paltrow, who received an Oscar® for best actress in the role) substitutes in the performance, but Queen Elizabeth emerges from her disguise in the audience to pardon the woman for the infraction, as if Queen Elizabeth was an early feminist trying to remove barriers for women in English society. Whether you buy the plot or not, and there is no reason to do so, the film does make a statement about discrimination against women. However, most of the film is delightful fantasy, and the thought is unfortunately lost. MH