The Magic of Myths

Elizabeth: The Golden Age Director Shekhar Kapur on Making History Relevant

This Elizabeth is all Hollywood pomp and circumstance and no history.

In 1999, Elizabeth was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best actress for Cate Blanchett as the queen. The film depicted the early years of Queen Elizabeth I and her ascendancy to the throne of England. Almost a decade later, its director Shekhar Kapur has assembled most of his original collaborators and continues the story of the Virgin Queen and her battles both personal and against the Kingdom of Spain in Elizabeth: The Golden Years. I recently met with the director to discuss the film.

You take some bold historical liberties with Queen Elizabeth. The movie is my interpretation of Queen Elizabeth. Something that is 400 years old is bound to be an interpretation, and then when you take that into the realm of art, it becomes even more interpretational. And I ask myself, “Why make a film unless it interprets our current lives, [and is] something that is relevant to us and interprets past lives in the context of where we are now and in context of the politics of today and in context of our lives today?”

For example, when I was making the first Elizabeth, I was making my first film outside of India and there were screaming headlines in one of the major papers saying that I, an Indian, had ruined a British icon because she was the Virgin Queen and I had a scene in which she was in bed with Lord Dudley. It was my interpretation because what I learned about Elizabeth was she was a master spin doctor. In fact, at one point, she had all her portraits destroyed and had them all repainted in the image she wanted people to see her-so it was her interpretation of herself.

When I was working on the new film, some people said there was no relationship between Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh. What we do know is that when Raleigh married Lady-in-Waiting Bess Throckmorton, Elizabeth threw him into prison. So you start to interpret why she did that, especially at a time that was politically very, very dangerous for her. And so you start to interpret history and then you start to interpret it within the story you are telling and make it more relevant for ourselves and hopefully entertaining at the same time. It is a movie.

At the heart of the film, there’s a theme of tolerance versus fundamentalism. This is very relevant to us today. When I first started to film [after the 9/11 attacks], I went to El Escorial in Spain, which is where King Philip actually ruled from. It’s so large and I wanted to see where Philip sat, and it was a little cave. This king controlled the world from this little cave : [during] the Spanish Inquisition. Elizabeth, at that time, said to her people-even though 50 percent were Catholic-that she absolutely refused to allow the forces of intolerance to come into her country. So it becomes very relevant in the context of our lives today where we are trying to understand that maybe what we need is more tolerance. All of us individually need to fight fundamentalism, and the forces of fundamentalism are rising. What’s relevant is Elizabeth won the war against fundamentalism without being fundamentalist. So it was very important for me to make the film very relevant.

The King of Spain is portrayed in your film like an insect praying in the dark. He was constantly praying. He was, in a way, divine-he had given up everything. He interpreted the word of God how he understood it and Elizabeth interpreted the word of God how she understood it. And yet everything that was told to me about Philip was that he sat and prayed all the time, and that he had arthritis, and that he was very small. It was interesting to explore that people in power sometimes are quite small and feel insignificant.

Elizabeth’s Lady-in-Waiting, Bess, is dressed in the movie almost exactly like the queen every time they are onscreen together. What we should always try to do is see a film from a political point of view, from a psychological point of view. We should also see it through a mythic point of view. To me, the mythic story is that Elizabeth and Bess are the same person-one represents the spirit side and the other the mortal side. Raleigh was sent down by the gods to actually surgically separate the two. : So only when Elizabeth let go of her mortal side, represented by Bess Throckmorton, was she able to rise above and become divine. And when she became divine, the gods supported her. Then she was able to fight the Spanish Armada and win. I come from India and we think about our lives in very mythic terms.

There’s a relationship between the architecture and Elizabeth in both movies. In the first film, she seemed small. In the second film, she seemed much bigger vis- -vis the buildings. The surroundings always represent the internal life of the character. In the original film, she seemed small in comparison to the buildings. The architecture was the power by which she felt small, and if you look, gradually toward the end of the first film, she starts to dominate the architecture. In the new film, in the scene when she beats up Bess-she’s jealous, she loses control-she’s really tiny. The architecture dominates her. But throughout most of the second film, she dominates visually against the architecture. She is in charge of her life, she is in charge of her court, she is actually quite dominant here.

The costumes as well match the mood of Elizabeth. Yes, the costumes also represent the internal life of the character. I don’t think anyone knew what Elizabeth wore when she sat on that horse. There was a conflict between myself and the costume designer because blue was not a color of that time and I wanted a lot of blue in Elizabeth’s costumes because she is yearning to be divine and, to me, blue is the color of yearning. So I kept saying, “Let’s add some more yearning. Let’s put some more yearning in the music, let’s put some more yearning in the costumes.”

How hard was it to convince Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush to join you again on this journey? Cate was very difficult to convince. I mean, she resisted and resisted and rightly so. She felt that with the last film, Elizabeth became an iconic character and it’s very difficult to go out and challenge something that is iconic. : I was absolutely sure she would challenge herself and better herself. But it took some convincing.

Are you going to do a third one? I’m thinking about it a lot. : There’s a story about when she knew she was going to die; she stared out a window for 18 hours and she wouldn’t sit down because she thought that if she sat down, she would die. She was willing death away. How true is that? I don’t know, but it is fascinating. I want to make a film about what went through her mind.


Elizabeth: The Golden Age opens in Santa Barbara theaters this weekend. Additionally, Cate Blanchett will be honored as a Modern Master at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in February 2008.


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