One is intellectual comedy, the other political intrigue. Both entertain.
Aside from aesthetic similarities, there’s not much resemblance between Elizabeth and the recent Elizabethan Shakespeare in Love. Other than some crossover actors and the obligatory comparisons of costume and set design, the two films are quite different. It would be easier to compare them respectively to two other films (as we will do later), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Becket. So with that in mind, let’s get the obvious out of the way.
- Elizabethan period pieces
- Ornate wardrobe, magnificent scenery
- Geoffrey Rush and Joseph Fiennes
- Feminist plugs
These two films are almost coincidental in period filmmaking. First we have Elizabeth, a sweeping drama chronicling the rise and rule of the Virgin Queen of Olde England. Next to the big screen in the same year was Shakespeare, a light-hearted comedy about the Bard’s days of womanizing, musing, and captivating Olde English audiences.
Needless to say, the costumes and sets were beautiful, a real treat on screen. Lush landscapes, gothic ominous castles, and richly drawn characters embodied both the air of the times and the historical figures they portrayed.
Geoffrey Rush’s Academy Award winning performance in Shine and his outstanding portrayal of Javert in the recent remake of Les Mis?rables has cemented his mark as a character actor. Rush’s reputation preceded him first in Elizabeth as the queen’s aid, and then in Shakespeare as the theater director. Playing in two Elizabethan era movies in one year, let alone an entire career, would have been risky for an ordinary actor. But Rush has a magnetic screen presence, stealing the show in nearly all his supporting scenes. Also switch hitting is Joseph Fiennes. He was the queen’s love interest in Elizabeth and the Bard himself in Shakespeare. If Joseph proves anything like his older brother Ralph, he’ll be one to follow. The heavily Oscar-ed Shakespeare was certainly a springboard film for his budding career.
One mutual bond between Shakespeare and Elizabeth was their subtle nods to feminism. The subject matter of Elizabeth gears it nicely to today’s pro-feminist climate. It’s refreshing to see such a positive monarch painted so well in a film. Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth plays the part superbly, displaying the transition from spirited young princess in the opening to hardened queen in the closing act. At one point, her former pre-crown lover Robert Dudley (Fiennes) says to her in court, “You’re still my Elizabeth.” Her reply is terse, “I am no man’s Elizabeth.”
In Shakespeare too, there is a clever incorporation of feminism into the story. Acting in William Shakespeare’s (again, Fiennes) big opus is Viola De Lesseps played by Gwynyth Paltrow. This was completely unheard of for the day since female characters were played by effeminate men, as women were forbidden from the chauvinist stage. Of course Viola’s character was in disguise. Still, the likelihood that she’d get away with it seems nil. In the end, when she is found out, an older Queen Elizabeth consoles her, “I know something about a woman in a man’s world.”
- Shakespeare in Love vs. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
- Elizabeth vs. Becket
First off in our two-part comparison is Shakespeare in Love versus Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. The similarities are as follows:
- Intellectual, yet farcical comedies
- Philosophical perspectives
Both films were written by Tom Stoppard. John Madden directed Shakespeare. He’s had time developing his knack for Elizabethan story telling. He also directed Mrs. Brown, which chronicled the life of Queen Victoria.
The uniqueness of Shakespeare and Rosencrantz is their plot. Instead of simply focusing on the Bard’s work, Shakespeare highlights the man and his inspirations. Rosencrantz too is a very apt adaptation of traditional Shakespearean lore. This one takes the two rather incidental characters from “Hamlet” (for whom the film’s title is named) and extrapolates the story of their fate with hilarious wordplay.
Particularly riotous was the “game of questions” scene. Played aesthetically like a tennis match, Rosencrantz (Gary Oldman) and Guildenstern (Tim Roth) engage in Jeopardy-like linguistic competition. Every sentence must be in the form of a question.
At times, Shakespeare plays like a well-timed farce, the likes of Noises Off… or Oscar. Interestingly, both of these movies as well as Rosencrantz were all originally stage plays before being adapted for the Silver Screen. This really attests to the talent of their respective writers for being able to translate door-slamming farcical antics without the advantage of a close-quartered stage.
And for all of their caper comedy, both Shakespeare and Rosencrantz retain a sort of intellectual composure. Without repeat viewing, one would be hard-pressed to catch all of the verbal acrobatics. Better yet is how both films mesh so well within the Shakespearean world of setting and language.
Finally, Shakespeare and Rosencrantz make relevant commentaries on perspective and philosophy. Rosencrantz was born out of an old acting joke that goes like this: An actor is hired to play the gravedigger in “Hamlet.” “What’s it about?” his wife asks. “It’s about a gravedigger who meets a prince,” he says.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are living this joke. Never mind that the two characters are already dead by the time the film starts. They don’t know it and see the events of “Hamlet” as centering around themselves. Shakespeare too pays homage to the old joke. In a local bar celebrating the night before Shakespeare’s big premiere of “Romeo and Ethel: The Pirate’s Daughter,” a minor actor describes the play from his point of view. “Well, it’s about this nurse…”
The point here is classic egocentrism; that is, the tendency of people to view the universe with themselves at the center. Readers of “Hamlet” know the play revolves around the Danish prince, his pains and his dilemmas. Yet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, all events of the play have conspired to result in their deaths.
The opening scene of Rosencrantz finds the two men flipping coins in a pasture, coming up heads over 200 times straight. Reasoning that the laws of probability no longer apply to them, the two come to realize they have no control over their destiny. The film’s examination of fate and exposition on perspective is both enlightening and remarkably funny.
Shakespeare also has its moments of brilliance. It’s a wonderful tale of the burden that is the author’s blank page, and the nature of timeless storytelling. In Bill Shakespeare’s time — as in modern times — audiences came to expect rather simple but dependable plot devices: a romance with some comedy and a “bit with a dog.” Not much has changed, has it? The recent Something About Mary sports cheap laughs with a canine and Lost & Found stars David Spade playing second fiddle to a mutt.
In fact, Shakespeare itself isn’t without its modern day plot devices. Ms. Paltrow gratuitously bares all in more than one love scene. In a film so self aware, I was a little disappointed by that. The theory goes that Shakespeare’s romp with De Lesseps was his inspiration for “Romeo and Juliet,” while incidentally a great excuse to show Paltrow naked. Establishing the relationship between De Lesseps and Shakespeare is one thing; bribing the male audience members who wouldn’t otherwise be there is quite another.
The second pair of films to compare are Becket and Elizabeth. They are similar as such:
- Political and religious intrigue
- Verbal sparring matches
- Cathartic characters
Queen Elizabeth I gets only minimal screen time in Shakespeare in Love as the older wiser queen (Judi Dench). Her character is a young princess (Blanchett) when we meet her first in Elizabeth. The latter tells the story of the Virgin Queen and her fearless rise to power.
Her dying queen’s crown barely made it atop the young Princess Elizabeth’s head since Queen Mary, her half-sister, considered her an illegitimate sibling. Eventually Elizabeth would have it, and with the kingdom she would inherit a nest of political problems.
At the outset of her newfound throne was a power struggle between the Catholic and Protestant churches. God and State were inseparable then and there, and Queen Elizabeth’s challenge was to quell the quarrels as well as protect her rule.
So too were Henry’s problems in Becket. Played magnificently by Peter O’Toole, King Henry II was a particularly whiny and pretentious ruler. To leverage more power against the Church, Henry cleverly elected his longtime drinking and wenching buddy Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) to the office of Archbishop of Canterbury. Fortunate for Henry, Becket passed the prerequisites by already being a church deacon. Henry’s plan was to have someone in the post whom he trusted to sequester the Church to the Throne.
Just as Shakespeare in Love and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead had breathtaking wordplay, Elizabeth and Becket were equally impressive verbal sparring matches. In Becket, the opposing sides were initially the power hungry bishops of the Catholic Church and of course King Henry. That quickly changed when Becket began taking his new job as archbishop seriously. Henry soon found in him a forceful debater, more idealistic and steadfast than any of the bishops. Becket was a friend that knew the king’s will and motives more than any other man. And this made Becket dangerous to Henry’s throne. Inevitably, this lead to Henry’s famous plea to his nobles, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”
O’Toole and Burton were two thespian giants in their day. They had such chemistry together in Becket that it really puts into perspective the trash that passes for film today. Seeing Elizabeth, however, restores my hope.
Blanchett’s transformation from the carefree princess to the legendary queen is astonishing. To avoid assassination, Elizabeth is forced to eliminate her dissidents with all the sweeping demises of a Godfather episode. Her final step is to become “married to England.” She assumes the likeness of the Virgin Mary, donning her infamous parched white makeup and christening herself the “Virgin Queen.”
Likewise, Thomas Becket reached his epiphany of needing God and swore to uphold the position to which he was appointed. One clergy, the other royalty, these two films do an excellent job of retelling pivotal periods in England’s past and the characters that orchestrated them.