The Person Beneath the Crown: Cinematics and Performance in ELIZABETH
1 May 2011
Cinema has often told the “reel” story of Elizabeth I, the unbefitting Queen who astonishingly turned England’s turbulent time into the prosperous Golden Age. Typically, cinema emphasizes the violence of Renaissance England, and stresses the dramatic, ostentatious Queen to appease movie-goers seeking an epic spectacle. And, while the time period was brutal and the monarch often brazen, this one-dimensional storytelling lacks relatability with contemporary audiences.
Few cinematic representations of Elizabeth tell of the person beneath the crown, instead centering on popular public (mis)perception of the Queen of England. Even those attempting to discern the individual from the ruler often lose focus and inevitably concentrate solely on the Queen; perhaps unintentionally suggesting Elizabeth’s individuality is shed as she evolves into England’s monarch.
Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998) is one of the few exceptions. Elizabeth’s value is not in its biographical content, lavish aesthetic spectacle, or historical (in)accuracy (although, to some degree, the film encapsulates each of those things); rather, Elizabeth’s significance comes from its unique, focused account of Elizabeth as a person, not simply Queen of England, supported by the film’s intentional and intelligent cinematics.
A striking moment epitomizing the film’s alliance to Elizabeth the person is the scene in which Elizabeth prepares to confront the priests of England about unifying the country’s religion. By this point in the film, the religious chaos Protestant Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne poses to the very Catholic England has been brewing and is rapidly approaching a breaking point.
During this scene, the camera cuts back and forth between medium shots of Elizabeth rehearsing what she will say to the priests and, through the first person camera technique, Elizabeth entering the chamber full of priests. The repeated cuts in this scene break the film’s continuity. This break is anxiety producing for the audience.
Viewers must now find their bearings in a scene that dismisses chronology. This anxiety parallels the anxiety Elizabeth feels as she prepares for and eventually meets with the priests. The scene’s composition invites the audience to not only know Elizabeth’s emotions, but also feel them along with her.
During the shots of Elizabeth rehearsing in her chamber, she is in all white underclothes, surrounded by a white set; she has no make-up on and her hair is pulled back. Overall, Elizabeth appears an innocent, unaffected, blank canvas. Viewers are privy to this unfiltered, unpretentious, private moment in Elizabeth’s life. The scene is full of abrupt cuts of Elizabeth rehearsing the same lines or similar lines over and over, experimenting with tones in an effort to find the best way to communicate her stance. Elizabeth is not the traditional, pillar of strength Queen in this scene; here, Elizabeth is a vulnerable, intimidated nervous person. This representation if Elizabeth is personal and intimate; this is an Elizabeth the audience can relate to.
Moreover, the cuts to the first hand camera technique put the audience directly into Elizabeth’s shoes. The audience, as Elizabeth, sees the priests from a low angle, showing how Elizabeth perceives herself as weak amid this large group. The priests are in all black and the room is darkened, except for sunlight surging though the stained glass windows at the very top of the steeping room. When juxtaposed with the bright, light shots of Elizabeth rehearsing in her chamber, the darkness surrounding the priests sets an ominous tone, further helping the audience experience Elizabeth’s fears and uncertainty as she does.
What solidifies the film’s representation of Elizabeth as a relatable individual, as opposed to pretentious royalty, is Cate Blanchett’s performance. Blanchett’s Elizabeth is an understandable, genuine person; a “real,” not “reel,” Elizabeth. Particularly in this scene, Blanchett’s performance is affective, in voice, physicality, and demeanor. Perhaps most emotive, Blanchett’s voice suggests the vast range of feelings Elizabeth is overwhelmed with at this time. Moments of confident, deep tones that reinforce Elizabeth’s strength, juxtaposed with rushed lines and dropped endings highlight the insecurity Elizabeth is struggling with. Additionally, the audience watches Elizabeth’s face as she tears up and becomes flushed, eventually burying her face in her hands out of fear and frustration. Moreover, her hands and arms are often irrationally gesturing, suggesting the indecision Elizabeth feels. And, often times, Blanchett looks directly into the camera with penetrating, frightened eyes, solidifying the connection Blanchett achieves between Elizabeth and the audience. Blanchett’s emotional capacity aligns with the scenes cinematics to convey Elizabeth as a relatable individual.
Elizabeth’s maintained focus on Elizabeth the person makes for a more satisfying movie-going experience. Other films depicting Elizabeth the Queen can be thrilling to view, but cannot provide for the audience the connectability or understanding Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth does. Through clever, provocative cinematics and a poignant performance by the film’s leading lady, Elizabeth engrosses the audiences and leaves viewers feeling as though they know more than the facts of Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne; instead, the audience gets to know the person beneath the crown.