Monday, October 29, 2007

Elizabeth: The Paranoid, Propagandistic Years

Augustana and I went to see Elizabeth: The Golden Years this weekend, partly out of a sense of professional obligation (Augie, as her pseudonym suggests, works on a later period but sometimes pinch-hits for the Renaissance) and partly out of a desire to see some really pretty clothes. We had, it must be said, extremely low expectations.

But given those low expectations, we had a damn good time--a better time, I imagine, than the fiftysomething couple in front of us who kept shifting or half turning around in their seats every time we burst out laughing at a solemn moment or had a whispered coversation about whether Mary, Queen of Scots could really have had a Scottish accent--because dude, wasn't she raised in France?

Other bloggers have already commented on the historical liberties the film takes, and while I don't mind some condensing and collapsing and shuffling around of events, I was initially irritated by the depiction of the period's religious politics. As Augie noted, Philip II of Spain, whom the film presents as a fanatical Catholic, is basically a caricature of a modern-day Islamic fundamentalist bent on holy war. In fact, the film suggests that all its Catholics are somehow in league with each other against Elizabeth, and that Spain sent its armada not because of English interference with Spain's New World holdings, and not because of English support for the United Provinces--but because Philip was really mad that Elizabeth had Mary executed.

But as the film went on, I started to enjoy its naive nationalism and the fever-swamp of its religious paranoia. It reminded me of actual Early Modern propaganda--and you'd better believe there's nothing Flavia loves more than propaganda. Then I began thinking about how awesome it would be to teach clips from the movie alongside, say, The Faerie Queene (for Book 3, the clip of Elizabeth in armor on horseback, surrounded by fluttering flags with the cross of St. George, would alone be worth the DVD purchase price).

It's disappointing that the filmmakers are promoting such a luridly nationalistic version of history--and that there seems, for instance, to be no irony in their portrayal of Elizabeth as an enlightened and religiously tolerant ruler in contrast with Philip--but that wouldn't make it any less effective as a teaching tool. Just as in The Faerie Queene: what's true of almost every villain? They're Catholic! And how do you know they're Catholic? Look out for the rosary beads! (Seriously, I think there are more rosaries in this movie than there are actors.)

And if all else fails, there's educational value--surely!--in oohing and ahhing over some pretty dresses.

10 comments:

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

I loved that Elizabeth-channeling-Joan-of-Arc moment with the white armor on horseback. And as a Hispanist, I fully expected to be horrified at the portrayal of Philip, and was duly rewarded. :)

neophyte said...

What does it say about me, I wonder, that every blog post I read detailing the various travesties stunningly executed in this film only makes me want to see it that much more?

As if the obvious promise of textilegasm weren't enough, things like this -- innumerable things like this -- just keep croppin' up: Elizabeth in armor on horseback, surrounded by fluttering flags with the cross of St. George

!!!!

That's it, get me to my nearest purveyor of fine cinema. I want in.

Sisyphus said...

I loved it (saw it Sat) --- all those yummy costumes and beautiful camera angles --- so it is obviously pitched at someone who loved Shakespeare back in high school and doesn't remember much in the way of details. I thought more that the visuals were the point and the story/history just some framework to drape the visuals on.

On the other hand, I saw that director's "Four Feathers," expecting it to be a post-colonial critique, and instead got this very odd "yay British empire! Kill those savages!" theme. I was disappointed --- I was rooting for the Madhi.

Flavia said...

You know, Sis, that's funny--I was discussing the movie over drinks last night with another Renaissance friend (who's out there reading somewhere; hi friend!), and she commented that there was something really disturbingly rah-rah empire about Elizabeth, too, which she found all the more odd from an Indian director. We agreed that the portrayal of the Spanish was also uncomfortably racialized--they were all very, very dark, swarthy Spaniards, for one thing, and clearly marked as Other.

If Augie's right that the movie is, at least partly, meant to be read as Enlightened West vs. Global Jihad, that makes a kind of sense. . . but again, the racial/ethnic caricaturing seems awully strange coming from a former colonial.

Wol said...

Now I know exactly what frame of mind I need to be in when I go see it next week!

Anonymous said...

As Augie noted, Philip II of Spain, whom the film presents as a fanatical Catholic, is basically a caricature of a modern-day Islamic fundamentalist bent on holy war. In fact, the film suggests that all its Catholics are somehow in league with each other against Elizabeth, and that Spain sent its armada not because of English interference with Spain's New World holdings, and not because of English support for the United Provinces--but because Philip was really mad that Elizabeth had Mary executed.

Not at all. The film suggests Philip was pleased that Mary was executed -- in fact, he deliberately set the plan to ensure her execution in motion -- so that he had a palatable excuse to wage war.

I honestly have no idea if that is historically accurate, either, but the movie definitely wasn't suggesting that the Armada was about Mary.

Flavia said...

Anon: well, there were a lot of things that were unclear about that plotline (quite apart from the likelihood of my misunderstanding or misremembering what I saw), but although I agree that the movie implied that Philip was glad to have the excuse of Mary's death, that excuse was rooted in Philip's supposedly single-minded desire to see a Catholic set on the throne in England. So yes, he took cynical advantage of someone (Mary) who was increasingly not looking like such a great bet, in order to try to install a different Catholic ruler. (Presumably eventually his daughter, the Infanta, who kept carrying around that stupid doll who looked like Elizabeth.)

So you're right that I didn't render these events quite accurately in my post. I should have said that the movie implied that Philip HIMSELF implied that he was really mad about Mary's death. My central point about the movie's gross exaggeration of Spain's religious motive, however, remains.

That religion was *one* of Philip's beefs against Elizabeth, absolutely. But that it provoked the Armada, no. (And as far as I know, there's no historical evidence for Philip being involved in that plot against Elizabeth's life, or in Mary's execution--or indeed for his caring too much about the execution once it happened. But maybe I should ask my readers: any historians want to weigh in?)

medieval woman said...

Oh god! I went to go see this movie with Renaissance colleague last night and we had the exact same reaction - funny as hell, totally nationalistic and Bushie propaganda, and damn do I want that fly emerald green dress she had on! I was disappointed that we didn't get the entire Tilsbury speech - we both shouted out (not quite) sotto voce at the end of that scene: "The heart and stomach of a king!?!"

And the little rosaries floating into the abyss as the Armada burned were just too much...hee, hee.

P.S. Why did Philip have those skinny little bow legs and shuffled so strangely when he walked? Is that historically accurate?

catholic lurker said...

The mainstream media today -- entertainment, news -- is vehemently anti-Catholic. It's disgusting. Any excuse to bash Catholics, to paint all priests out as pedophiliacs, to portray "The Church" as corrupt -- makes big bucks in our culture.

muse said...

Yes, Flavia you have hit the nail on thehead- it's like early modern allegorical propaganda. I didn't think it was anti-catholic though- just anti-Spanish and therefore pretty racist (did you notice how all the Spaniards at court had dyed black hair and lisps and were a whole foot shorter than everyone else?). It can't be anti-catholic, because Samatha Morton is Mary Stuart and she's the sacrificial lamb. See- *some* Catholics (the ones with the Scottish accents ;-) are good- but non-white Catholics are BAD.

As a side note, I found it dramatically intollerable. The script wasn't witty, the actors were struggling to keep it going, and any film that makes me not care what happens to Clive Owen- and Clive-Owen-in-Tights, no less! - is doing a supremely bad job.