Director Sophia Ford Coppola, side stepped the notion of mixing glamour with historical accuracy by giving her film Marie Antoinette a modern edge, with contemporary music and a modern day feel. Shekhar Kapur, with his expensive production, mixes his metaphors. I imagine there is nothing too glamorous about having one’s head brutally severed from their body with the brute force of an axe man, particularly not while spectators gawp at this historical event. However, Kapur makes this event so surreal that I even noticed sunlight embellishing the block that Mary rested her head on. Choir music adds to the dreamy sequences. Fashionably, the costumes are fantastic and Elisabeth is never seen without some ornate wig and hair piece. Jean Paul Gaultier, could have been imported to decree how the costumes should look!
The film certainly had a large quota of style, well conceived images, attention to detail, especially the main set which is rich with beautiful objects. Elisabeth came across as a totally pampered monarch, when taking her bath, it was full of flower petals, surrounded by candles, like in some TV commercial (the old advert for flake). She could control her subjects with any sudden whim, ordering them to dance a bizarre dance, one that had been popular at the time. She certainly had a temper to match her flame coloured hair and woe betide those who met her displeasure! She also showed remnants of human frailty, though her enemies were dispatched in the clinical cruel fashion, by order of her henchman Sir Francis Walsingham, played by the ever excellent Geoffrey Rush, she still seemed racked in numb pained guilt. Of course at the heart of this film is Catholic, Protestant struggle, punctuated by the Spanish desire to conquer England and place Mary Queen of Scots on the thrown. Deaths were justified, in the name of religion, but also because Elisabeth’s sheer survival was at stake. There was a scene of a potential assassin rushing in on Elisabeth, who stood there glowing whiter than white, not a mortal, but like a goddess, almost unmoved. The assassination attempt failed, with the assassin seemingly more fearful of Elisabeth than she of him. Yes Elisabeth at times cut a fearful figure. She was a true Queen, she could give her benediction to babies held out to her as she passed. She controlled the lives and destinies of her courtiers, the most significant being another Elisabeth or Bess, played by Abbie Cornish, who dared to steal away her Walter Raleigh played clumsily and unbelievably by Clive Owen.Yes, important to this film is the love triangle between Elisabeth, Raleigh and Bess. Elisabeth was straddled with the responsibility of finding a husband and bearing a child, which she was to fail on both counts. She was presented in court by some lamentable offerings as to "men". The best example of these was an Austrian prince, who though strategically for England a great catch, as a husband, he would fallen well short of Elisabeth’s needs. Viewers could see her dismissing his whimsical advances with a candor. He kept purring with preconceived compliments, and Elisabeth put him firmly in his place while showing off her grasp of the German language. We were shown firmly that on Raleigh, with his tales of the new world, was remotely close to her equal. Maybe she was in some ways like a modern day woman, strong and independent, not suffering fools lightly, motivated, focused, a leader. She also had a strong wit and wisdom. Her human frailty could also be traced to the fact she relied on an astronomer, John Dee, one of the intellects of his time, who tried to answer some of the questions that haunted her, what was England’s destiny? Was she to be the "virgin Queen" throughout time, or was she to find true love. In a way she was like a supremely rich modern day icon, lavished with wealth and goods and power, but the people surrounding her, never genuine, seeking her favour, due to her position and rank and not for the inner person. Strip away her title and power and undoubtedly she would have been perceived differently. She was like a pop star surrounded by sycophants and hangers on. The love triangle for me could have been one the strength of the film, but it lacked any spark. Cate Blanchett was imperious as Elisabeth, Clive Owen, seemed for want of a better cliché, "wooden" though occasional charm seeped through, but nothing really bold enough to formulate any chemistry between himself and this omnipotent woman. A toothless, insipid, performance by Mr. Owen, a swashbuckling Errol Flynn type he was not, the eccentric Johnny Depp type pirate, he was neither; he certainly did not conjure up the image of Sir Walter. He always pressed the fact that he was loyal and in the pocket of the Queen. This triangular relationship could have been far more poignant.
There were some comical scenes, as he presented the potato to the court, where would England be now, if we didn’t have fish and chips? Tobacco also presented much amusement, but the story of tobacco is a different one to that of the potato. Sometimes this film slipped into the surreal, a white horse jumping into the sea, or a crucifix sinking deep into the water, as the Spanish Amada was left in turmoil. Sometimes the film was in danger of mirroring the BBC satire series "Black Adder". There were even moments of the Pirates of the Caribbean Sir Walter swinging off a rope and lunging into the sea as the boat he had steered rammed into the Spanish ship, to smother it in flames.
There is a wealth of visual opportunity with Elisabeth, the clothes she wore, especially that white alabaster coloured skin face she had. Sometimes Elisabeth’s voice would lower into deep tones, reminding me of a latter day Margaret Thatcher. There was of course her battle rousing speech on the English coast as the Spanish fleet drew closer. Sat on a horse, her red haired wig flapping in the breeze, wearing shiny bright spotless armour. With a speech to rival any other speech, by hero or heroine from England she said: "I have come amongst you as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved in the midst and heat of the battle to live or die amongst you all, to lay down for my God and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust." .
If this does not rouse you what will. But, my American friend, on asked what he thought of the film told us there was "no story". Well I had to retort this period in history helped shape the modern world, and the protestant/Catholic rivalry was so embedded in the history of Britain. "No Story" I think not, it was a remarkable story, rather it was the way the story was told that belied his perception. I have always had a fascination for history, but maybe this film mixes fact and fiction too readily and goes for the beautiful image while losing sight of substance.
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