Kapur's rejuvenation of Elizabeth is a narrative of sexual desire. He tells his story of the Virgin Queen with heavy emphasis on the queen's "virginity," which she accepts as a grim political necessity, given that she is not, nor is inclined to be, a virgin. Sex is not a subplot of the film; it is a primary conveyance of the plot and, more importantly, of character. Mary, for instance, is the queen whose husband, Philip II, is repulsed by her bed. She is a "type," like Cinderella's evil step-mother, whose wickedness only serves to ennoble the fair Princess Elizabeth. Elizabeth is a carefree, dancing lover who, at first, is under the spell of Robert Dudley's love. Her rise as mature Queen and her increasing sense of power and self-possession are mirrored in the fate of Dudley. It is he, not she, who is destroyed by their love. Dudley's degeneration is sealed through a loveless and, as it turns out, a deadly tryst with one of Queen Elizabeth's ladies-in-waiting. Unknown to Dudley, the young woman wears a dress recently given to Elizabeth, not yet worn and laced with poison. As he tears at her dress, her panting turns to frantic screams. Sex turns fatal. Dudley can do nothing but run from Elizabeth's dying surrogate. Could this have been the Queen in Dudley's arms?
Kapur's film might appear to be a simple costume drama, but Elizabeth carries hints of complexity, not merely in its staging and props, but also in its use of sex to deliver the meaning of events. In early scenes with Dudley, for instance, sex conveys innocence and purity Elizabeth and Dudley are the only characters in the film that make love in the light of day. Elizabeth conceals nothing, no ulterior motives and no misgivings or shame about sex. In good modern fashion, sex is a sign of the true, unadulterated self. Later in the plot, sexual deviance becomes a convenient sign for the young Queen in a moment of decision. She has been pressured to marry, for her own safety and the good of England. She does not know how to resist. Her resolve comes to her when she witnesses her French suitor, Duc d'Anjou, in his cross-dressing exploits. After discovering him in drag, she gives a hardy laugh and announces that there will be no more talk about marriage. Duc d'Anjou's deviance puts marriage before her eyes as the true danger. If sex is innocence, it is pretense and corruption as well.
Sex is also a sign of treachery and sedition. The treachery of Elizabeth's nemesis, the Duke of Norfolk, is signaled during his first appearance on screen, by means of a lover's bite from his mistress and mole, a handmaid to the Queen. In contrast to Elizabeth and Dudley in the open air, Norfolk's mistress bites his thumb in the shadows, with subtlety and with hints of violence. Likewise, their final acts of lusty love-making are dark. At the close of the film, their erotic movements are simultaneous with the bloody undoing of Norfolk's plot against Elizabeth. Sex is intertwined with Norfolk's own brutality and with the violence that he will suffer. Sex is given the troublesome resonance of sacrifice. Ultimately, Norfolk will lose his head, and Elizabeth will bear the pallid mask of the Virgin Queen. Both are conceived as martyrdoms.
Elizabeth's martyrdom is revealed through the very structure of the narrative. It is a sexual sacrifice. Norfolk's sacrifice, in contrast, hinges upon his questionable claim to have a cause for which to die. Upon his arrest, he describes his own impending death as martyrdom, but his self-importance is quickly put to rest by Elizabeth's adviser, Walsingham, whose own cynicism allows him to see through to Norfolk's self-serving motives. Elizabeth's martyrdom is undeniable. The film opens as three Protestants, under Mary's reign, wail and shriek as their heads are shaved, and scalps cut open, in preparation for the stake. The scene is appalling to say the least. The display of sheer cruelty is witness to a true martyrdom and true sacrifice. Just before the closing scene, the meaning of these events is transferred to Elizabeth. Her ladies-in-waiting wail as her long hair is brusquely "hacked off so that she may don the garish red wig of the Virgin Queen" (Alleva 1998: 14). Although bloodlessly, she too is being prepared for martyrdom, the sacrifice of a sexless existence.
Kapur's narrative works, in large part, because Elizabeth's fate represents a type or category of modern martyrdom. Queen Elizabeth I, as a historical individual, fades because her body and her story are transferred to another time. At the beginning of the film she is natural and free. She is "in touch" with what is real and true. She is a young person with long, loose hair who dresses unconventionally and seems to disavow the conventions of her social station. In short, the narrative casts her as the sixteenth-century version of a free-loving-dancing-in-the-fields hippie. The telling of her story faces the challenge of explaining how this noble young woman of conscience becomes a colorless queen, while, at the same time, maintaining her (sexual) integrity. How is it that we are domesticated so readily when love and sex are meant to be free?
As implausible as denying the sexual self might be in our world, Elizabeth's story makes sense of it. Elizabeth, as the Virgin Queen, is clearly distinguished from Mary who plays the anti-type, the frigid hag of a half-sister. Mary is rigid and dogmatic. She has no spirit of life in her; therefore, sexual vitality is missing from her constitution. But how is it that Elizabeth allows her sexual self to be bound and repressed? How is it that she allows her body to be constrained by the needs of others? Unlike pitiful Mary, Elizabeth is a tragic figure. Her sexual goodness and the original purity of her sexual self are sustained only as they are ruined by the necessities of her duties and integrity as Queen.
Typically, the modern sexual comedy moves from inhibition and social constraints to sexual discovery. In the process, the protagonists of this tale find themselves. They awaken from a long sleep as they are enlivened by sexual desire, as desire frees the true self. Elizabeth's story retains the same construction of the sexual self, but reverses the plot. Her story begins with the true sexual self, and ends with the martyred Virgin Queen. The narrative first establishes her as a free and true sexual self, and then makes sense of her sexless future and her self-denial.
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