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.

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine