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FIT FOR A QUEEN; BLANCHETT REVELS IN ROLE OF FAMED MONARCH IN `ELIZABETH'.

Byline: Bob Strauss Daily News Film Writer

She is not your ancestor-who-came-over-on-the-Mayflower's Queen Elizabeth. But she may be the most persuasively human virgin monarch ever portrayed on the screen.

Cate Blanchett, the rising young Australian actress (``Paradise Road,'' ``Oscar and Lucinda''), plays Britain's most famous queen as a vibrant young princess and shrewd student of court intrigue, but definitely not as a virgin in ``Elizabeth.'' Influenced in about equal measure by ``The Godfather,'' Machiavelli and Shakespeare's bloodier takes on royalty, the film occupies both a different time frame and a different conceptual realm than the ``Masterpiece Theatre'' rendition or those old Bette Davis movies did.

Four centuries' worth of conventional British history might say that ``Elizabeth'' operates on a whole other planet. But that's why Blanchett was so intrigued by it.

``This deals with a lesser-known part of her reign,'' the blond, willowy actress explains. ``It's very easy, when someone is as iconic a part of British history as Elizabeth is, to make assumptions about her character in light of her achievements. I think that Shekhar was very much interested in a more personal sort of historics, seeing how she and the kingdom progess from a state of chaos to a state of logic and order.''

The early monarch

Shekhar (pronounced Shaker) is director Shekhar Kapur, whose last film, ``Bandit Queen,'' told the true contemporary story of an unusually powerful female outlaw in his native India. He wanted to focus ``Elizabeth'' on the pre-icon years, immediately before and after Henry VIII's 25-year-old daughter inherited the throne from her devoutly Catholic half-sister Mary in 1558.

With Spain and France vying to keep England in the Vatican fold, royals from both countries sought Elizabeth's hand in marriage - or else. Meanwhile, Catholic-leaning noblemen such as the Duke of Norfolk conspired to prevent Elizabeth from re-establishing her father's Protestant Church of England as the nation's official faith.

As threats from both within and without increased, Elizabeth had to put politics and power consolidation ahead of personal satisfaction - which had included, according to the film, a passionate affair with the Earl of Leicester (played by Joseph Fiennes, younger brother of Blanchett's ``Oscar and Lucinda'' co-star Ralph Fiennes).

Kapur rejected many young actresses for the sought-after role before catching a glimpse of Blanchett quite by accident.

``It's been a tradition in England, and perhaps all over the world: The prime roll every actress wants to play is Elizabeth,'' Kapur says. ``Why? Because she was the fantastically greatest and most powerful woman who ever lived. But all the films about Elizabeth, so far, have taken place after the image was created. They have started where we end, with this very powerful woman. We've gone back and said, let's see how this power evolved.

``So when I was looking for a girl to play Elizabeth, A) she had to be younger, and B) she had to have the possibility of going into that journey, of being able to look vulnerable, in love, inept. You would never believe that this girl would have the qualities you associate with Elizabeth, but through the film she has to become harder, lifeless. So I needed an actress who could look extremely strong and extremely vulnerable in the same movie.''

`Oscar' payoff

Blanchett fit that bill; Kapur knew she would the first time he saw a promo reel of ``Oscar and Lucinda'' at a producer friend's office. There were other first impressions, too.

``I saw a face that, at times, looked like it belonged to a spirit and not a person,'' Kapur notes. ``That was great for a character who some would say becomes a shell, an image. And Cate also had a face that looked like it could belong to 400 years ago.''

Good as she's been in them, though, Blanchett takes some exception to being labeled a period-piece actress.

``I wish I could say I've had the depth of planning to shape my career like this,'' says the actress, a graduate of Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art and a veteran of the Sydney Theatre Company. ``It's really been what's come up and what's been the best thing to do.

``But when people say `period piece,' I think they're really saying `dull, boring and quaint,' '' she reckons. ``So one really has to find a reason why one wants to delve back into history for one of these. You can't patronize or make it a history lesson; it's got to be a dramatic work.''

Moving forward

Blanchett will get more up to date in her next couple of films: ``Pushing Tin,'' a comedy about air traffic controllers in which she'll play an American opposite John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton; and ``The Talented Mr. Ripley,'' a Patricia Highsmith thriller directed by ``The English Patient's'' Anthony Minghella and co-starring Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow.

There's certainly a modern streak in Blanchett's Elizabeth portrayal. Something, you might say, that a movie star of the 1990s could easily relate to.

``When someone is as enigmatic a monarch as she was, you'll never know the internal mechanics,'' she says. ``But because she was thrust into the public eye, utilized in rebellions before she even ascended to the throne, she realized that she needed to be all things to all people.

``I think she had a very strong sense of performance. It was really interesting to play that interface between what's going on internally and that mask that she presents at various points.''

Blanchett herself avoids the trappings of movie royalty. The Melbourne-raised actress, whose father was from Texas, lives apart from the show-business crowd in a beach suburb of Sydney with her husband, writer Andrew Upton.

But people are already touting Blanchett as an Oscar contender for her fresh take on the Virgin Queen. Rather than turning into an ego-princess, however, she seems to be taking the buzz in the same humble spirit that her old Australian stage pal and ``Elizabeth'' co-star, Geoffrey Rush, dealt with his Academy Award for ``Shine.''

``I was fortunate to be in `Oscar and Lucinda,' where Oscar was just in the title,'' she jokes. ``I guess it's that time of year. It's flattering, but not personally; it means that people are excited by the film. That's all it means, and the rest is in the lap of the gods, I guess.''

Blanchett is just thankful for the opportunity to play unique, resourceful and totally unpredictable women, regardless of what era or level of society they may come from.

``These haven't been simple women in male-dominated worlds,'' she says of her screen roles. ``I was lucky to have people to play who were fleshed-out in a three-dimensional way. It's much harder to make a thinner character richer.''

CAPTION(S):

3 Photos

Photo: (1--Cover--Color) ROYAL ROLE PLAYING

Cate Blanchett's `Elizabeth' delves into the monarch's carefully crafted character

Cover design by Lori Valesko/Daily News

(2) The Earl of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes) and Queen Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) have a passionate affair in the new film about the monarch's life.

(3) Joseph Fiennes, left, and Cate Blanchett share a moment in ``Elizabeth,'' which focuses on the queen's early reign.
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 5, 1998
Words:1185
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