"I have rid England of her enemies. What do I do now? Am I to be made of stone? Must I be touched by nothing?"
-Queen Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett)
10 years ago, a relatively unknown director and a relatively unknown actress teamed up with several notable names to bring the early reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England to the big screen. The resulting film received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress. A decade later, the original cast and crew have re-united for Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which tells the story of Elizabeth's conflict with the Spanish Armada. In celebration, Universal has re-released the original film on DVD and HD DVD. And it's reassuring to find that even after all these years, the film is as powerful and beautiful as ever.
Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) is under serious threat from her half-sister Mary Tudor (also known as Bloody Mary), the Catholic Queen. Elizabeth herself is a Protestant, which makes her a threat to the ruling regime. The only thing that keeps her alive is her royal blood. However, when Mary dies of a cancerous tumor, Elizabeth is the only surviving offspring of Henry VIII, and so she takes the throne. As soon as she does, she learns that England is bankrupt, and she's surrounded by enemies, led by the Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston), an outspoken Catholic. In order to defend her against the plots of these men, Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) is brought out of exile to be her spymaster. He works behind the scenes while she tries to learn how to rule, and what to do with her lover, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes), whom she loves but cannot have.
Elizabeth is many things. Historical epic, love story, character study. It succeeds in being all of them at once. Director Shekhar Kapur tells the tale simply but clearly. He adds a few stylistic touches when necessary, but mostly lets events unfold as they will. Screenwriter Michael Hirst took a few liberties with Elizabeth's life, specifically in turning the long-held rumors of a tryst with Robert Dudley into cold hard fact and making it the center of the story. Still, these changes don't lessen the film, but instead strengthen it.
The real treat of the movie is Cate Blanchett as the title character. While she had given a few good performances prior to Elizabeth (the most notable being the wonderful and underrated Oscar and Lucinda), her performance here rocketed her to the forefront of the acting world. She makes Elizabeth into a woman of deep conviction, great intelligence, and uncharted depths. It's a thoroughly nuanced piece of work, and even after all this time, still one of Blanchett's best.
She is so good, in fact, that she often threatens to overshadow her esteemed colleagues. First and foremost there is Geoffrey Rush, who helps Elizabeth become the Queen she needs to be. Rush is as good as Blanchett, but in an entirely different way. He underplays Walsingham, stripping him down to his barest essentials. For Rush, a look speaks louder than a thousand words ever could.
Christopher Eccleston is an able villain in Norfolk. Even his recent overexposure in Doctor Who and Heroes can't diminish his work here. Richard Attenborough also makes a rare appearance as Sir William Cecil. Daniel Craig makes the most of his limited screen time as a murderous priest. And even John Gielgud gets to throw his weight around as none other than the Pope of Rome.
Really, the only weak link in the whole film is Joseph Fiennes as Robert Dudley. While not a bad actor, he doesn't have the gravitas to share the screen with the elder actors, nor the skill to compare against the younger. Clive Owen looks to be a much better sparring partner for Blanchett in the sequel than Fiennes ever made here. It doesn't really come as much of a surprise that he hasn't taken any roles nearly as high profile as here or in Shakespeare In Love.
Still, not even Fiennes can bring down the high quality of the film. It's a stirring, riveting picture with fine writing and even better performances. And on the eve of The Golden Age, it is more than worth taking the time to revisit where it all started, with the story of that Virgin Queen, Elizabeth.
The HD DVD:
Universal presents Elizabeth in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in this VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer. I happened to have the corresponding DVD edition, and going back and forth between the two, both the differences and the similarities were immediately apparent. The HD DVD clearly has more depth and film grain than the DVD. It feels more like film for this. There's also slightly more detail and better color reproduction. A good example is when Elizabeth is first told she is going to be queen. On the DVD, her cheeks look white as snow. On the HD DVD, you can see that there are shades of red.
However, at the same time, the image isn't drastically different, and as an HD transfer goes, it's not the best. Darker sequences suffer greatly, and look almost the same as on the regular DVD. The improvements are on the disc, they're just subtle instead of major.
Universal offers a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless track along with a lossy Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix. Truth to tell, I really couldn't discern between the two. I didn't sit down and do a double-blind test, but if I did, I'm certain I'd have no idea which track is which in this case. Elizabeth is a dialogue-driven film, and both tracks do an excellent job of making sure all the voices are perfectly balanced, and with good fidelity. The score spreads to the surrounds nicely. No problems with these tracks, just nothing that really impresses, either.
Universal ports over all of the features from their last DVD release, with the exception of a photo gallery. They add an extended trailer for The Golden Age, as well. None of the extras are in HD.
- Commentary by Director Shekhar Kapur: Director Kapur sits down to gives his thoughts on the film. For the most part, it's fairly engrossing, with a nice mix of historical information and behind the scenes stories. At times he does fall into the trap of narrating the scene at hand, but those instances are few and far between.
- The Making of Elizabeth: Running just under half an hour, this making of is more of a discussion about the film by its participants than an actual behind the scenes document. Still, the actors give such interesting insight into their characters that in this case the "talking head syndrome" can be forgiven.
- Elizabeth Featurette: A six-minute fluff piece without any value.
- Elizabeth - The Golden Age Sneak Peek: Basically an extended trailer, this certainly got me excited for the upcoming sequel.
- And lastly we get a theatrical trailer.
Elizabeth is a film that has aged like a fine wine, getting only better with time. Cate Blanchett shines as the Virgin Queen, and Geoffrey Rush matches her pound for pound. The HD DVD has decent picture and sound, but nothing that can compare to the best available. Still, the movie is so good, and the A/V quality and extras are good enough that it's very easy for me to suggest a purchase of this disc. Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.