The Big Picture: The tale of a royal hair-raiser

ELIZABETH (15) DIRECTOR: SHEKHAR KAPUR 120 MINS STARRING CATE BLANCHETT, RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH, CHRISTOPHER ECCLESTON

ELIZABETH is Shekhar Kapur's follow-up to the controversial Bandit Queen, and it too is about a female figurehead struggling to gain purchase in a patriarchal society. The royal title to which the heroine is laying claim may be legitimate this time, but her dissenters are no more likely to favour a harsh word when an arrowhead will do the job just as well. As the film begins, the future Queen Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) is an emaciated waif given to skipping through copses with her dippy, doe-eyed sweetheart, Robert Dudley, played by Joseph Fiennes, an actor guaranteed to have you screaming "off with his head!", or at least "out with his eyes!". How she goes from winsome children's television presenter to the powdered Gorgon surveying England through eyes that recede into her skull, is a story incorporating murder, subterfuge and one bad-hair day after another.

The gore and brutality of the early scenes suggest that Kapur is still locked into the sleazy, B-movie mode which was so inappropriate to the complexity of Bandit Queen, but which could conceivably prove fitting now that any royal thriller has to live up, or rather down, to La Reine Margot. Interrupting the plush costumes and solemn ceremonies are flashes of poetic ugliness: the perseverance of an open razor slicing into a stubbly scalp; a ring being tugged loose from the finger of the freshly-dead Queen Mary (Kathy Burke). Kapur chooses not to pursue the contrast between opulent surfaces and the visceral interiors which they conceal. He is interested in a different kind of friction: between public and private lives; between who you are and who the world demands you should be.

To say that he investigates this theme to the best of his abilities is not actually saying very much at all. When he's on form, Kapur can just about keep a story juddering along. But he's no visionary. In Elizabeth, he communicates ideas in the most rudimentary cinematic language. When Elizabeth thinks she is about to be executed at the will of Mary, we see her framed within a cross. Eye-of-God shots crop up to remind us of the overbearing religious presence in the story. Moments of significance are signalled by a bleach-out. Sinister figures move in slow-motion. Bad guys grimace.

And curtains. Don't mention curtains. It is common for a film to be arranged around colours or textures, but rare for one item of interior design to so completely dominate a picture's surface. Kapur has hit on the idea of using curtains to symbolise layers of deception and secrecy. It's a fine, powerful idea, certainly, and no less successful for being the only one in evidence, nor for having been utilised to better effect in The Baby of Macon. The shot which introduces Elizabeth begins blurred and slowly sharpens into focus, and Kapur repeats this effect throughout the movie by shooting scenes through veils of nets or curtains, a trick which distorts an image and also introduces a note of distance and seclusion.

The curtains even lend a feeling of specific space in a film which struggles to achieve definition among its expansive sets - they create little enclosures and traps, sometimes eerie, sometimes sensual, into which characters can retreat. A moment of tenderness between Elizabeth and Robert becomes a tangle of flesh and fabric as the curtains about her bed cling to their limbs. The idea of imprisonment is compounded when an assassination attempt leaves her fastened beneath a net by an arrow that has missed its mark. And the practical, even farcical business of negotiating your way around sets divided into flimsy cloisters is deliciously exploited in a scene where Elizabeth seeks out Duke d'Anjou (Vincent Cassel), a potential husband, by whipping open a succession of curtains, each one revealing revellers in increasing states of undress and debauchery.

Only one person remains beyond this dominion: Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), Elizabeth's ally and spy, who is forever outside the curtain, looking in. This is a perspective which the camera adopts more often as it goes on, aspiring to an obliquely critical objectivity which is never entirely convincing. Still, Walsingham's presence pervades the picture. He gets to set out the movie's agenda, too, warning a would-be assassin: "Lose your innocence and you lose your soul".

Once Walsingham arrives at Court, the Queen's strategic prowess flourishes, though it's curtains for the old Elizabeth, metaphorically and literally. The film is at its most challenging as it traces the hardening of Elizabeth's soul, even as it encourages the audience to cheer on her triumphs - the essence of dramatic tension lies in this ambiguous disparity between what a film-maker does, and appears to be doing.

Kapur uses the camera to objectify Elizabeth - to quantify her as a list of body parts rather than a complete woman. This requires a very precarious collaboration with Cate Blanchett, who, for her part, must retreat back into a character whose vulnerability she has already exposed, erecting a barrier only once she has made it clear exactly what that barrier will be concealing.

It's essentially the same journey that Hitchcock mapped out for Kim Novak in Vertigo, only in reverse; where Novak was called upon to suggest a woman who was more than just the sum of her curves and her hair colour, Blanchett begins with a sunny, soulful portrait which she and Kapur gradually break into splinters. When Elizabeth is being undressed by her handmaids, lightning dancing on the walls of her chamber, the gaggle of women unlace the corset from her body, and begin unscrewing the rings from her fingers; the icy lighting and frozen composition so strongly suggest the genre of Gothic horror, that you wouldn't be surprised if they continued to dismantle her digit-by-digit, limb-by-limb.

In the end, it all comes down to hair. Elizabeth begins the film with lush, flowing locks and from there graduates to a plaited bun. When things get uncomfortable with the treacherous Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston), she shows up in a crown of severe curls, forking at the back into three, prong-like tails, and secured in place by pins as unwieldy as the bolts in Boris Karloff's neck. In her final scene, she has barricaded herself inside a bulbous, bloated dress, with her neck ringed by a ruffle the size of a dinner plate, and her fiery curls dragged back beyond the hairline. Perhaps it's a sign that the transformation has not been entirely successful that your sympathies are focused more on the decline in her sense of a decent hairstyle, than on the consumption of her spirit by experience and cunning.

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