The film sees a young Elizabeth elevated to the throne on the death of her half-sister Mary I, who had imprisoned her. Her reign over the divided and bankrupt realm is perceived as weak and under threat of invasion by Early Modern France or Habsburg Spain. For the future stability and security of the crown she is urged by advisor William Cecil (Attenborough) to marry, and has suitors in the Catholic Philip II of Spain and the French Henri, Duc d'Anjou. She instead embarks on an affair with the wholly unsuitable Robert Dudley (Fiennes).
Elizabeth must counter threats from within such as the powerful 4th Duke of Norfolk (Eccleston), and from the armies of Mary of Guise (Ardant) garrisoned in Scotland. She also faces plots from Rome directed by Pope Pius V (Gielgud). Assisted by her 'spymaster' Francis Walsingham (Rush), she puts down the threats both internal and external, ruthlessly executing the plotters. Elizabeth eventually ends her affair and resolves to marry nobody except England. The film ends with Elizabeth assuming the persona of the 'Virgin Queen', initiating England's Golden Age.
Elizabeth permanently banishes Dudley from her private presence when she finds out that he is married. Elizabeth feels that such relations could give a man too much power over her. Moreover, cutting off her relations with Dudley is part of the process by which she becomes increasingly tough and assertive, in one scene she carefully prepares and rehearses the speech she would deliver to a recalcitrant Parliament and force through her religious reforms, the Act of Uniformity. She also becomes capable of occasional ruthless behaviour as in unflinchingly ordering the execution of those who she considers dangerous to her rule. After Elizabeth's advisor Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) discovers Norfolk and De La Quadra plotting with King Philip, she orders their arrest and execution. Mary of Guise is assassinated by Walsingham, who acted on unofficial orders from Elizabeth. All this is a considerable change from the warm-hearted, rather romantic girl which Elizabeth was in the early parts of the film; remaining such would have been incompatible with being a queen who actually ruled and dominated the men around her, and her transformation is a major theme of the film. The film ends with Elizabeth having her hair cut by Kat Ashley (Emily Mortimer) and assuming the vanilla-faced and gowned persona of the 'Virgin Queen', and initiating England's Golden Age. She sits down on her throne, and the screen cuts to black.
According to the director's commentary, Kapur mentioned that the role of the Pope (played by Sir John Gielgud) was originally offered to, and accepted by, Marlon Brando. However, plans changed when Kapur noted that many on set would probably be concerned that Brando would be sharing the set with them for two days. Later, when Gielgud had taken the role, Kapur at one point suggested (in vain) that the Pope's accent should be Italian; he added that every British actor within earshot was horrified that any director was asking Sir John Gielgud to speak in an accent that "wasn't John Gielgud".
A large proportion of the indoor filming, representing the royal palace, was conducted in various corners of Durham Cathedral—its unique nave pillars are clearly identifiable as such.
The film was received well by critics and the public, it holds an 82% 'fresh' rating on film aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes based on 49 film critic reviews. The site's consensus was: "No mere historical drama, Elizabeth is a rich, suspenseful journey into the heart of British Royal politics, and features a typically outstanding performance from Cate Blanchett."
Alnwick Castle, Alnwick, Northumberland, England, UK (Princess Elizabeth is arrested with her followers)
The film takes many liberties with history for dramatic effect. Among them:
Inaccuracies in personal demeanor and relationships
The central theme of the movie is the rapid transformation of the romantic young woman to the austere Virgin Queen, a role which Elizabeth reluctantly assumes of her own volition in order to secure her position of power. In reality, the cult of the Virgin Queen was put into full effect after Elizabeth's last serious marriage proposal over 20 years after she became Queen. Elizabeth's failure to marry was portrayed as an act of self-sacrifice, which had kept England free from foreign entanglements. In keeping with this artistic theme, Elizabeth in the film eventually ends all personal and romantic relationship, and maintains only her relationship with the Machiavellian character of Walsingham. The historical details of her life are manipulated, particularly her close personal relationship to Dudley, Cecil, and Ashley to be consistent with the artistic theme of the film.
At the end of the film, Elizabeth decides to shave her hair to look like a virgin. In reality, she never shaved or even cut her hair short. Later in her life, when someone entered her chambers not knowing she was still in bed, it was recorded that the queen's hair was "all about her ears". In the film, she is shown wearing a wig in the end, and though the real Elizabeth did wear one later in life, it was worn to hide the thin, sparse hair that was the result of her bout with smallpox.
In the film, Robert Dudley is Elizabeth's lover; however, though their relationship was romantic, it is not known certainly whether it was sexual. In any case, as he was married a few years after the death of Henry VIII, Elizabeth would have knowingly been having sexual relationships with a married man, but the film portrays her as ending her affair when she finds out that Dudley is married.
The film depicts Robert Dudley flirting and later having sex with Lettice Knollys. In reality, Lettice was married to Walter Devereux during this period, and while she did flirt with Dudley briefly, Lettice would return to her husband and give birth to many children, including Robert Devereux, Elizabeth's future favorite. In fact, any romantic relationship between Dudley and Knollys did not occur until at least 1573.
In the film, Kat Ashley is portrayed as Elizabeth's agemate and the relationship more of a friendship. In reality, Ashley was 31 years older than Elizabeth, her governess, and Elizabeth remained devoted to her until she died.
William Cecil was not even 40 years old when Elizabeth began her reign, contrary to his cinematic portrayal as elderly. He was not retired by the young queen, either. He remained one of her most trusted advisers until his death, shortly before hers.
Francis Walsingham was in his mid-twenties when Elizabeth was crowned, not a middle-aged man as he was portrayed by Geoffrey Rush. He was not sexually ambiguous, and his political prominence in the film was exaggerated. He was, however, a proponent of torture.
The Duke of Norfolk was a young man of 22 when Elizabeth succeeded to the throne and not, as portrayed in the film, in his mid-thirties. He was however 36 years old when he was executed in 1572.
In the film, Elizabeth rejects Henry's suit in part because he is a bisexual transvestite; in reality, Henry is not recorded to have been a transvestite and rumours of his bisexuality may have been a smear campaign.
The conspiracy of the Duke of Norfolk combines several events into one—in the film he is arrested and summarily executed for trying to supplant Elizabeth and marry Mary, Queen of Scots, to cement his hold on the throne. In reality, Norfolk was imprisoned in 1569 for trying to wed Mary, Queen of Scots, without permission, but was eventually released. He was then implicated in a separate plot in 1572 (three years later) to put Mary, Queen of Scots, on the throne, for which he was then tried and executed. Contrary to his portrayal in the film as ruthless and powerful, he was actually a weak man, easily led and used by others.
Mary of Guise was rumored to have been poisoned by an agent of Elizabeth, but evidence is that she died a natural death.
In the film, Robert Dudley converts to Catholicism and joins the plot against Elizabeth. In reality, Dudley was a lifelong Protestant and remained a loyal confidant of the queen throughout his life.
In the film, a fictional courtship between Elizabeth and Henry, Duke of Anjou, is depicted. In reality, the two never met and the Queen of England was actually courted nearly ten years later by his younger brother Francis, Duke of Anjou when she was 46. The film also depicts Henry as Elizabeth's agemate; in reality, Elizabeth was 18 years older than Henry.
In the film, Henry, Duke of Anjou, is portrayed as Mary of Guise's nephew, spending time with her in Scotland after the rejection of his suit by Elizabeth and being present at her death; in reality, Henry never met Mary of Guise, and was in fact not related to her by blood. Henry's brother Francis was Mary of Guise's daughter Mary's first husband. Also, Mary of Guise belonged to the House of Guise, who were sworn rivals of the House of Valois, to which Henry belonged.
In the film, the ambassador of Spain, Álvaro de la Quadra, is assassinated in retaliation for the Babington Plot; in reality, de la Quadra died in 1564, 22 years before the Babington Plot.
The film also makes no mention of the fact that Norfolk was Elizabeth's cousin through her maternal grandmother Lady Elizabeth Howard.
The Earl of Sussex was a loyal servant of the Queen and was neither implicated in the plot nor executed.
When Elizabeth is being questioned by her accusers in the beginning of the film at the Tower of London, the bishop suggests that the debate between Catholicism and Protestantism is what killed her mother, Anne Boleyn. This is not at all the case, for it was the (probably false) accusations of witchcraft, incest, treason and fornication between Anne and other noblemen that sent her to her death.
In order to guarantee passage of the Act of Uniformity, Walsingham locks up six bishops (including the dead Stephen Gardiner), securing the Queen's act, which won by five votes. No such incarceration took place. Also, bishops throughout the film are shown wearing black mitres, which is historically inaccurate.
The film depicts John Ballard as a co-conspirator of Norfolk in a fictionalised version of the Ridolfi plot; in reality, Ballard was considered the initiator of the Babington plot and was executed for his involvement in the same in 1586.
The film depicts Sir Thomas Elyot being murdered by drowning by John Ballard, who reveals Elyott had been passing information on Howard's actions to Walsingham; in truth, Elyot died in 1546 at his estate in Cambridgeshire.
Elizabeth premiered in September 1998 at the Venice Film Festival and was also shown at the Toronto International Film Festival. It premiered in London on 2 October 1998 and it premiered in the United States on 13 October 1998. It opened in the United Kingdom on 23 October 1998 and opened in limited release in the United States in nine cinemas on 6 November 1998, grossing $275,131. Its widest release in the United States and Canada was in 624 cinemas, and its largest weekend gross throughout its run in cinemas in the US and Canada was $3.9 million in 516 cinemas, ranking No.9 at the box office.Elizabeth went on to gross $30 million in the United States and Canada, and a total of $82.1 million worldwide.