You wait for it. Each year, you wait for that film which suddenly slips out of the pack and shoots to the forefront as a consummate piece of filmmaking. Some times it happens on the first day, sometimes the last. Sometimes it doesn't happen at all. But it has now happened for me: Elizabeth: The Golden Age is that truly glorious thing: a brilliant film from start to finish, an expression of a carefully considered, masterfully woven tapestry of talents and visions. Shekhar Kapur launched the stardom career of Cate Blanchett more than ten years ago with his beautifully realised depiction of the early life of the great queen, with the first Elizabeth, and now, with his sequel, he has helped to secure her place as perhaps the consummate actress of our age, the heir apparent to Meryl Streep.
In the press conference, which has just finished as I write this, actor Geoffrey Rush (who plays Walsingham, Elizabeth's closest advisor in the movie) describes Kapur's directing style: huddled on the set of a great piece of gothic or Tudor architecture, Kapur asks the actor where he is feeling he wants or needs to be in the room. When Rush (who was also in the first film and understands this intuitive style), suggests a place near the middle of the room, Kapur responds that he now sees the gothic arch surrounding Rush, pressing down on him the weight of the history of the country. This is how great filmmaking is born: this collaborative process among deeply gifted artists. The openness leads to innovation and creativity. And yet, there is clearly a master stylist at work. The camera is constantly revolving around its queen, and yet remains invisible as it does so - the sign of the best choices. When we are too conscious of the camera, then we have left the world of the film. But Kapur also makes fantastic use of the 'overwide', a shot from so far away that the subject is almost invisible. In a moment of indecision about the coming Spanish-English war, we are suddenly high above a vaulted ceiling, looking down on a lone Elizabeth, way into the central long end of the frame, leaning against a wall, a tiny figure alone in her massive decision.
During the press conference, Kapur also spoke of wanting always to reflect the emotional world of the characters --- I wish I could say I paid him to say this, as it is exactly what I have been coaching my students to understand. Therefore, the revserse tracking shot, down a long corridor, as Elizabeth agonizes the final hour before the death of her half-sister Mary, Queen of Scots, which she has ordered, is perfect to reflect the character's torment: we are not so close that we are sensationalized, but close enough to never be let off the hook of her dilemma. This is what movie-making is all about.
Finally, Kapur also told the press corps that the film has a consciously post-9/11 political resonance. The Spanish war is defined here as a way of extending the horrendous Christian crusades of this period. Although it is convenient (and naive) to assume that the Virgin Queen was acting on her own religious moral ground, it is important to remember that the principle of the divine right of Kings, begun by her father, meant that she would have indeed felt her own sense of religious duty. To its enormous credit, the film does not exploit that possibility. Elizabeth is not made into an equally Christian figure (despite many scenes in which she is in prayer). As a religious person myself, and a Christian, I find this balance incredibly refreshing, as it points to the reality that all religious wars wreak havoc and leave lives unalterably shaken, whether the leaders engaged in them are openly religious or more quietly so. I suppose it could be argued that this film is Christian-bashing in its depiction of the Spanish, but I would argue back that it is inquisition-bashing (which I support wholeheartedly). And as proof, Elizabeth's stunning resistance of a gunman's attempt on her life, occurs while she is at prayer. She turns from the altar, embodied by divine strength as she stares down her assailant, and although nothing is implied in the filmmaking that she is acting on 'divine' energy, it is implicit in the scene in her own sense of personhood. In an era where Christian politicization of the war arena seems to have carte blanche, it would have been so easy to use this as a war of wills to allow the "best Christian" to win. In fact, that war was a complex engagement of politics, religion and personality of leadership, just as today's conflicts are.
This is the film to see (so far, of my festival). Remaining public screenings are tonight and tomorrow night. Go for it!
(See below for more reviews of yesterday's films.)