I’ve been holed up for the past two days writing a massive paper, and because I can’t write in silence, I’ve had the 1998 film Elizabeth on repeat as background noise. Well, this is about as good a way to begin as any. Let’s get to it.
Elizabeth is the story of England’s most famous lady monarch at the beginning of her reign. Elizabeth (played to perfection by Cate Blanchett) is a young girl when she is crowned queen upon the death of her elder sister, Mary I. Sultry and sensuous as her mother Anne Boleyn before her, Elizabeth finds herself equally at odds with the factions at court. The Catholic Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston) plots her demise. The Spanish and French ambassadors war over marrying her to the crowned heads of Europe. And she must fight the passion she feels for the married Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes), with only Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), her loyal bodyguard, in her corner.
What they got right: Elizabeth. Like I said, Cate Blanchett is perfection. She both looks and acts the part of the real Elizabeth, from start to finish. The story of split factions and betrayal is also true — the real Duke of Norfolk was arrested and executed on a charge of treason. The scene between Elizabeth and Mary, where Elizabeth pleads for her life, was very good. The costumes and sets were also well done.
What they got wrong. Here’s where I have fun.
Elizabeth knew Robert Dudley was married. Of course she did. They were imprisoned together in the Tower of London during the reign of Mary I, and were best friends (or closer, if you believe the rumors). It was speculated, during Elizabeth’s reign, that the Queen would grant Lord Robert a divorce from his wife, Amy Robsard, so she could marry him herself. Had this plan existed, it would have been quickly abandoned when Amy Robsard Dudley was found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs, her neck broken. Elizabeth was forced to distance herself from Dudley or risk speculation that she had arranged Amy’s murder in order to free Dudley for herself. They remained close until his death.
The Duke of Anjou may or may not have been a transvestite, but Elizabeth never saw him. The amorous Duke never journeyed to England to make a bid for Elizabeth’s heart in person. Francois, Duke of Anjou, was 18 years Elizabeth’s junior, and he did not present his suit before her until 1579, when Elizabeth was 46 years old — not young and vibrant as she was in the film. Elizabeth played with Anjou’s affections for two years before “regrettably” denying his suit in 1581
Francis Walsingham did not murder Marie of Guise. Marie, the mother of the current Queen of Scotland (Mary, Queen of Scots), was a member of the French House of Guise, the sworn enemies of the Valois, so it is unthinkable that she would have been entertaining Anjou. The real Marie died of edema at the age of 44. There is no record of her meeting or entertaining Walsingham, and the notion of him poisoning her is a work of pure fiction.
The directors couldn’t keep track of who was old, who was young, and who was dead. Case in point. Robert Cecil, Lord Burghley, was 40 years old when Elizabeth came to power, not the 80 years old that the guy from “Jurassic Park would lead you to believe.
There’s also Bishop Stephen Gardiner, the film’s curmudgeonly old bastard, who died in 1555 — three years before Elizabeth took the throne. Francis Walsingham was a young stud in his mid-20s (I love you, Geoffrey Rush, but neither you nor I will see 20 again and that is fact). And Kat Ashley, Elizabeth’s chief lady-in-waiting, looks young enough to be Elizabeth’s sister; in reality, she was 31 years her charge’s senior. I could go on but why further depress myself.
Norfolk, the film’s primary asshole, wasn’t that much of an asshole. Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, came from a long line of men with a tendency for pissing off the monarch and getting imprisoned or executed, and decided not to break with tradition. However, he was a Protestant, not a Catholic as depicted in the film. He was not a powerful or cunning man, but rather weak and ineffective, more puppet than puppeteer. He was arrested as one of the movers and shakers of one of the myriad plots to assassinate Elizabeth and put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. Oh. Did I mention that he was her cousin? Because he totally was. But the kind of cousin who you really wish your mom would stop inviting to Thanksgiving.
These are the primary historical inaccuracies in a movie rife with them, but this entry’s already getting long and my dinner’s in the oven. Fun little tidbit; this film was so incredibly biased against the Catholic Church that the Church condemned it for making the clergy look like a bunch of pricks. In all fairness, a film about a Protestant Queen, that the Pope declared a heretic and a bastard, is not going to be exactly pro-Catholic. But maybe having a priest beat a guy to death with a rock wasn’t the most charitable thing the directors could have done.