THERE is a moment in David Lean's film A Passage to India that I have always cherished. The trial of Doctor Aziz is about to begin, and the local sahibs—all stiff upper-lip—are on their way to the courthouse, self-righteously certain of convicting Aziz of the attempted rape of Miss Quested, while the frenzied Indians in the street are noisily rallying to Aziz's cause. We see a close-up of a passing British wheel crushing a placard. The clearly visible words are 'Quit India!'—two decades before Gandhi coined that famous slogan. But what do a few historical bloomers matter when Hollywood gets its hands on a good story?
I am sure Shekhar Kapur, the director of Elizabeth: The Virgin Queen, would heartily agree. Elizabeth is a film with the opulence of A Passage to India, the unrelenting action and camera tricks of Steven Splelberg's Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, and the strenuous sexiness of Mira Nair's Kamasutra—with lashings of lovingly detailed violence from the director of Bandit Queen. A feeling for the past and for the subtleties of human relationships are not its strong suits.
This is history for tourists, history as pageant, history as the clash between hoary stereotypes: the phlegmatic Brits, the amorous Frogs and the dastardly Spaniards. And who else to play such parts to the hilt of all those swaggering Elizabethan swords but trusty old, white-haired Richard Atten-borough as the young queen's advisor Sir William Cecil and, er, Eric Cantona, the well-known French footballer. Whenever the moustachioed Cantona appeared on the screen, implausibly costumed as the representative of the Duke of Anjou—seeking Elizabeth's hand (and body) on behalf of his boss—I didn't know whether to guffaw or simply sit back in wonder at the silliness of it all. Gerard Depardieu, Cantona is not. What next from Kapur? Oprah Winfrey as Winnie Mandela?
Geoffrey Rush, on the other hand, makes a fine, saturnine Sir Francis Walsingham, the ruthless advisor who enables Elizabeth to establish her throne in the face of Catholic plots against Protestant England. When the Pope, in far-off Rome, despatches a priest to England with a papal bull authorising faithful Catholics to assassinate the English queen—a genuine frisson here when one remembers the Ayatollah and the impudent writer in England—it is Walsingham who masterminds the strategy that will lead to the execution of the potential assassins. In one scene, powerfully conceived by the director, the wily Walsingham detects and unlocks a 'priest hole' in an aristocrat's mansion, in which the Pope's unfortunate emissary has taken shelter. Rush's restrained, brooding, performance, suggestive of keen, Machiavellian intelligence, unintentionally highlights the hamminess and overacting of the other courtiers. Here, one feels, is a flesh-and-blood human being, if not a likeable one—rather than a computer-generated, comic-strip villian. If anyone in Elizabeth is worthy of an Oscar, it is Rush.
Which brings me to the queen herself. It would be churlish to deny that Cate Blanchett holds the attention as Elizabeth most, if not all, of the time. One of her big scenes, in which, all alone, she converts the assembled bishops to her authority, will stick in the mind. Blanchett is clearly an actress capable of generating more mystery than, say, someone like Emma Thompson. Her struggle with her conscience faced with the need for violence against treacherous opponents is intermittently believable. But the film never really gives Blanchett a chance to prove her mettle.
FOR Kapur is determined to keep up the pace, never to let the audience think for itself. Everything in the film—the fast cutting; the attention-seeking camera angles (too many overhead shots of burning heretics, the court and the palace); the melodramatic lighting typical of an advertising film; the cliche-ridden script ("it is hard for a woman to forget her heart"); and the wall-to-wall musical score (complete with a twentieth-century Elgar lollipop but without an ounce of imaginative response to the music of the period)—is designed to titillate. All that is missing, it sometimes seems, is for the Virgin Queen and her lovers to break into song, a la Bollywood.
At least David Lean tried to be serious, even if he produced a film that Satyajit Ray described as having "some professional competence but not Forster at all". Shekhar Kapur's technical competence is undoubtedly considerable, but on the evidence of Bandit Queen and Elizabeth, he should stick to contemporary subjects, preferably Indian ones. I would be intrigued to see Kapur tackle a story, even a Mughal-period one, about struggles between Hindus and Muslims, rather than Protestants and Catholics. If, on the other hand, you want to see something about Elizabethan England, I recommend the BBC's Blackadder television series, with Rowan Atkinson as the queen's scheming, grimacing courtier-cum-suitor. It is not deep stuff, but when he makes a face you laugh—and, more's the point, you are meant to laugh.
(The writer, who has authored a definitive biography of Satyajit Ray and is a keen follower of Indian cinema, is currently with the Times Higher Education Supplement, London.)