Interview: Shekhar Kapur - The original Elizabethan

'What was it like being Elizabeth I ?' Shekhar Kapur's new film answers the question in a spectacular, sometimes shocking, fashion. By Rosanna de Lisle
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PEOPLE are saying I have sullied her reputation," says Shekhar Kapur. "I read it in the press all the time." He sounds unfazed: this is not the first time he has been accused of defaming his subject. In 1994, Kapur made Bandit Queen, his "true story" about Phoolan Devi, the low-caste Indian who survived gang-rape and marriage at 11, became a bandit, and spent 10 years in jail charged with killing 22 high-caste men. Devi claimed Kapur had cheated and misrepresented her, and tried to get the film banned. She failed; and Bandit Queen established Kapur as a director of unusual vision.

The dead cannot sue, so with Elizabeth, Kapur has less to fear. But pedants, particularly puritanical pedants, won't like the film at all. What's getting their goat is that Kapur has taken the hallowed notion of the "Virgin Queen", turned it on its head and twisted it. Elizabeth (played by Cate Blanchett) is first shown quite clearly consummating her affair with Lord Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes). Then, at the end of the movie, she emerges in full majesty and declares, "I have become a virgin."

Kapur sees the film as telling "the story of a journey from innocence to loss of innocence". Paradoxically, he depicts it to have been a journey from sexual activity to celibacy. "The idea emerged between the screenwriter [the historian Michael Hirst] and me," he says. "Whether she was or wasn't a virgin I think is unimportant. I was interested in the idea that people made such a big thing of it. It must have gone beyond a physical fact. She made a declaration of virginity as a political statement. So then you ask, what was behind that? She had at least three very well documented relationships. No reason has ever been given for her not having consummated her virginity." Except that Elizabeth was hardly ever alone: her ladies- in-waiting slept beside her; she was proud of her purity and protective of her public image - her mother and stepmother had gone to the block for alleged adultery; she never got pregnant - and all the reliable evidence suggests that there was nothing to stop her having children. But Kapur insists that his portrayal is plausible. "History has not proved she was not a virgin. It was important for her to make a statement that she was: to get the respect of her council and parliament. There was also some kind of guilt about having tried to deny the concept of the Virgin Mary: she needed to make up for that."

Kapur is not interested in factual small print. "I had to make a choice: whether I wanted the details of history or the emotions and essence of history to prevail." Instead, he paints with a broader brush. "It was almost like composing a musical score. My main concern was to tell the human story. She was a living, everyday human being - and then she became a queen. We took the icon, and went behind the icon."

For all he says about disregarding literal history, the movie is linear, distilling key events and themes from the time just before Elizabeth's ascension to the throne in 1558 through to her eventual triumph over her enemies in 1572. It belts along at such a pace, you hardly have time to work out what's going on. Elizabeth is bombarded by political rebellions, religious conflicts, marriage suits, scandalous gossip, attempts on her life, and war with Scotland. But the hectic effect is intentional. "Film is drama," says Kapur. "You've only two hours, so you lie by exclusion, and try to make up for it by portraying the environment. There was so much plotting, and it was so complicated: to describe it all would have made the film very simplistic, and it would have taken away from the character arc of Elizabeth. I saw an omnipresence of deceit and conspiracy, and tried to convey that in the way the camera moved and the lighting was done. The question was: what would it have been like to have been Elizabeth? There is no logic to it - but there is an emotionality to it."

For a historical film, Elizabeth is inherently dramatic, even melodramatic: an extraordinarily vivid recreation of a horrifyingly turbulent time, more La Reine Margot than A Man For All Seasons. Shot on location, steeped in atmosphere, and alternately moodily and blindingly lit, it shows up the studio stiltedness (and harsh shadows) of the much-admired 1973 BBC version of Elizabeth's life, which starred Glenda Jackson.

Every age seems to throw up an Elizabeth for its time. Sarah Bernhardt played her, silently, in 1912; Flora Robson took the role in Alexander Korda's Fire Over England (1937); and Bette Davis did her twice, in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), and in The Virgin Queen (1955). More recently and spoofily, we've seen Miranda Richardson in Blackadder and Quentin Crisp in Orlando.

Shekhar Kapur knows how lucky he's been to land Cate Blanchett. And Blanchett, who was little-known outside Australia before the release of Oscar and Lucinda, was lucky to come to his attention. It happened almost by accident. Kapur was in the London offices of Working Title, the producers of Elizabeth, who had already taken a punt in appointing a director with just one, very different film behind him. The movie was partly cast, but they had yet to find their Elizabeth. Kapur and Tim Bevan, one of the co-producers, were watching trailers when an early promo for Oscar and Lucinda came up. "The moment I saw her, I knew I had found my perfect Elizabeth," Kapur remembers. He met Blanchett in Paris, and would have given her the job there and then, if she hadn't insisted on doing a formal screen-test.

His hunch has paid off - handsomely. Blanchett gives a performance that's so powerful, it might over-dominate the film - were it not supported by a cast that includes Kathy Burke (as Queen Mary Tudor), Christopher Eccleston (the Duke of Norfolk), Geoffrey Rush (Sir Francis Walsingham), John Gielgud (the Pope) and Eric Cantona (the French ambassador). Blanchett's Elizabeth is passionate, determined, quick-witted, knowing, pragmatic and flirtatious; she's also distraught, scared and vulnerable. Kapur first shows her as Princess Elizabeth, living in relative freedom, madly loving Dudley, and standing a chance of never having to become Queen, if her half-sister Mary could only conceive. When she does ascend, there's a strong sense that her sovereignty cannot just be assumed - she was declared a bastard as a child, ruled out of the succession for most of her life, and accused by Mary of being a traitor and heretic. Elizabeth has to work to generate her majesty. Blanchett lets the private doubts flicker across the serene, omniscient public face.

All 20th-century portraits of Elizabeth have focused on her isolation as a woman in a man's world - perhaps that's what attracts us, in the century of female emancipation, to her story. She was a woman in an age in which men considered women incapable of government. Yet Elizabeth reigned successfully for 45 years.

Now, in the 1990s, the life of Elizabeth has a new resonance in the life of Diana, Princess of Wales, who happened to die as Kapur's cameras started rolling. He plays down the relevance, and says he didn't think about Diana much as he was making Elizabeth. "I can see only one connection: a girl fighting to keep her joyous, loving, normal nature, whilst also being royal," he says. "The whole film is about the humanity of royalty."

Cate Blanchett was more affected by the parallel. When we met in Sydney a few weeks after Elizabeth had wrapped, she told me: "It was incredible to begin filming two days after her death. The first line of the shoot was 'The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen.' And it was just very odd, very odd."

Blanchett knows her history, and read original sources in her research for the role. But for her, like Kapur, the human element is more important than the political. "The film is more a metaphorical thing about what it means to be queen. It's about what happens in public to the private self, and the melding of the heart and the head when there are not only political expectations but political ambitions. Shekhar has asked: what if? What if Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was in fact the love of her life? Which may or may not have been true. There are so many varied reports about her - that she was a hermaphrodite, she was a man, she was asexual, she was unable to have children - and I think it's similar to what happened to Diana."

She found the role a steep challenge. "It's very hard, when you play an historical character: you know there are certain facts, but you do need to find the dramatic reason for telling the story."

What was it like making the film? "It was a very tense experience. Shekhar is quite relentless; he's able to put his fingers into all pies, and he's very, very excitable. It can be quite enlightening and stimulating as an actor to work with someone who's indefatigable. He's got boundless energy - and I really don't think he slept for four months."

It doesn't sound as if Kapur will be getting much sleep in the coming months either. His next project is another biopic - of another national leader, another legend. He has acquired the rights to Nelson Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. "We're calling it The Birth of a Nation: the Story of South Africa," he says. Will it be a documentary or a drama? "Very much a drama. It'll be the new Lawrence of Arabia." From Shekhar Kapur, what else would we expect?

'Elizabeth' (15) opens in London on Friday and nationwide from 23 October.