After returning to this side of the pond, I went out a rented "Elizabeth" directed by Shekhar Kapur and staring Cate Blanchett in the leading role as the (not so) Virgin Queen. The chief impression I walked away with at the time was that it was a dark, brooding, and incredibly cynical piece. It was also interesting to see how the movie wove its way through the varying and contradictory world of Elizabethan scholarship. Nothing is deferred or left ambiguous; at each critical juncture, the movie takes a definite stand.
Fast forward to the present. My wife and I are working our way through popular depictions of English royalty in film. Nine years later, I saw "Elizabeth" again. While it's been too long to hash over matters of historical accuracy with the same surety in my opinions, my experience with interpreting film has grown. What impressed me on this viewing was the over-all story that Kapur and company are trying to tell: the birth of the modern God-State.
Rather than attempt to trace themes and symbols through the entire movie, I want to focus on the two scenes that bookend the entire piece: the burning of Latimer and Ridley and the apotheosis of Elizabeth. The movie begins with three protestants dying for their religious faith in the Marian persecutions. We are reminded throughout the film that the struggle in England between Protestant and Catholic leaves England weak in the face of its enemies in Scotland, Spain, and France. The burning sequence begins with the victim's heads being shaved. They are then hauled before a plainly sympathetic public and burned. Move forward two hours and the final sequence of the film shows us an Elizabeth who has united England by ruthlessly suppressing an attempted Catholic rebellion. The cost has been the removal of her lover, the execution of several leading officials and councilors, and the dismissal of her family's trusted but inept servant. Following an inference from the Memphistophilian Walsingham, Elizabeth is preparing to make herself a bloodless martyr for England by reconstructing herself as a secular Virgin Mary. This scene also begins with the dramatic cutting of the queen's distinctive red hair. She then presents herself to a plainly sympathetic court and pronounces herself "married to England." The message seems to be that Elizabeth's sacrifice of worldly happiness, her political martyrdom, makes her into a national saint that both Catholic and Protestant can believe in. She achieves in her life what Latimer and Ridley could not.
Whether the rest of the movie is history or Hollywood, this presentation of Elizabeth rings true. In the violent breakdown of the Medieval order that birthed the modern world, Catholic and Protestant battled for a new religious synthesis that would stabilize and re-unite Christendom. The secular powers represented by Europe's ruling families fomented this warfare in the furtherance of their own dynastic ends. Once these ends were either achieved or resoundingly thwarted, the war over religion no longer suited their purposes and became a threat. The newly emerged nation-states of Europe then intervened in the wars of religion as "honest brokers," offering to end the violence they had helped foment by subordinating religion to the needs of the State. The feelings of passionate devotion that had hitherto been given to religion were now claimed by the secular government. In effect, the State became god. This process is beautifully and terrifyingly portrayed in Shekhar Kapur's "Elizabeth." Beyond that, if I read Kapur right, then he is also saying that at the heart of the modern Nation-State is a deal with the devil.