Monday, August 19, 2013

Reel Connections: Elizabethan Portraiture and Cate Blanchett's "Elizabeth" (1998) and "Elizabeth: the Golden Age" (2007)

It's no secret that I love a great period drama, whether its on the silver screen or TV. It's something about that historic air, the magnificent costumes, the "real" characters, and the drama that accompanies any period piece. To be honest, most period films end up not living up to my sky-high expectations, but there are few that I pass up. In such historically-themed films, it is no surprise that filmmakers turn to the art of the period they are portraying to create a more realistic and recognizable feeling. In some cases, filmmakers will subtly, or often not so subtly, create tableaux of historic paintings. For me, when I recognize such efforts, I have a huge "aha" moment during which I'm flooded with pride for my own art knowledge and the director's gesture.

In history, Elizabeth I is one of my favorite figures, certainly one of my favorite monarchs, so it came as no shock to me that I greatly enjoyed Cate Blanchett as "the Virgin Queen" in both Elizabeth (1998) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007). I don't have the time- nor do you have the patience- to read my brisk summaries of both films- so I'm going to very efficiently concentrate on the matters at hand. The Elizabeth films both featured excellent casts, led by Cate, gorgeous settings, quick-moving drama, excellent dialogue and sumptuous costuming. In both films, I noticed a number of times where it was clear that the filmmakers and costume designers copied well-known portraits of Elizabeth to create costumes for certain scenes. For me, this added an air of authenticity to the film as well as a spirit of appreciation to the filmmakers for bringing the painting to life, in a manner of speaking. I'm going to concentrate on two specific instances, one per each film. 

Elizabeth (1998): The Coronation Portrait
When Elizabeth ascends the throne in the film, there is obviously a coronation scene. In it, Elizabeth is dressed in a gorgeous gold dress and robe, patterned appropriately with the Tudor rose of her father Henry VIII. If you recall your British history, after the "War of the Roses" between the Houses of York and Lancaster, Henry VII who came out of the conflict victoriously, united the houses through both marriage and the symbolic union of the Houses' heraldic Red and White roses. This heraldry would continue on to the modern day, and certainly would have been an important and recognizable statement in Elizabethan times. Her robe, in royal gold, is trimmed with ermine fur, an obvious symbol of the monarchy. She is then crowned by the Bishop of Canterbury, and given the symbolic orb and scepter of the state to hold. In the Elizabeth films, there is a great emphasis on Elizabeth presenting herself to the public and this makes a great visual moment. 

Now, if you are familiar with your portraiture, as I am, my description (withholding the "in the film" part) could be describing a very famous portrait of the "real" Elizabeth that was commissioned after her coronation. The costuming, symbols of state, and even hair is the same (both Cate and the real Elizabeth wore their notorious red hair down, covering their shoulders) in both the portrait and the movie. When you see the connection, it really clicks. The filmmakers didn't create their own regal imagery, they simply masterfully reused imagery that had been employed in Elizabeth's own time. Both the scene and the painting, have an air of reverence, royalty, and magnificence. They also have an almost propaganda-like feeling. The portrait was commissioned to glorify Elizabeth's reign shortly after she was crowned while the film attempts to recreate the coronation ceremony that was just as much an attempt to impress and awe audiences besides serving a practical purpose. Both also capture the youth of the young queen, as she ascends power. I think it's pretty clear the Elizabeth certainly did justice to the coronation. 
Coronation Portrait (1600): Detail
To briefly discuss the painting. It currently sits in the National Portrait Gallery of London where it is admired to this day. While the artist is unknown, it is clear that the artist was masterful enough to recognize and reuse common symbols of the monarchy that have appeared in English Royal portraits for years. According to some experts, this painting is actually a copy of a lost original that would have been painting around 1560, immediately after Elizabeth's coronation. Regardless, it maintains an air of magnificence, reserved only for a royal. 

Elizabeth: The Golden Age: The Ditchley Portrait

My next comparison is more a stretch, but I think it is a legitimate point to make. You can make your own decision. In Elizabeth: The Golden Age, lots of strife bothers the queen, personified in Mary, Queen of Scots and Philip's Spanish Armada. At the end of it all, Elizabeth once more reigns supreme and there is this great scene where she stands in the center of the room, outstretching her hands, as the camera circles her. It is difficult not to be struck by the royal magnificence as she triumphs over all her obstacles. It is not this scene exactly that makes me think of a specific painting, but another instance.
Before I mention my specific painting point, I'd like to mention another aspect of The Golden Age that I was struck by. If you've seen the film, it's impossible to film. I'm obviously referring to the large map of Europe that sits in Elizabeth's palace. It's completely unique and more importantly an incredible visual. There's one scene where Elizabeth plots out how she's going to defeat the Armada on this giant map of the floor using these model ships and it's simply great theater. Actually, it's really great theater because, like many of the events in this and other period, it never historically happened, but I digress.
This "floor map" is, as far as I know, completely a figment of the studio's imagination and does not exist anywhere in the world, let alone in England. The only comparison I could find in research is the impressive Madaba Map, a 6th century mosaic map of the Palestine and the Holy Land. Regardless of its veracity, I loved this map, so I'm glad some artistic licence was taken.
The map also provides my second portrait connection. Now, Elizabeth's Coronation Portrait (see above) is pretty well known, with good reason. A somewhat less-well-known portrait, though still fairly recognizable to those knowledgable in the field, is a portrait known as the Ditchley Portrait. It was painted much later in Elizabeth's reign, in 1592, after her glorious defeat over Spain and contains a large amount of symbolism  which was common in the portraiture of the day. The artist, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger portrayed Elizabeth magnificently dressed in a white gown, referring to her titular virginity and purity. A storm rages on one side of the canvas, while clear skies beckon on the other, apparently a symbol of both Elizabeth's might and mercy. The painting, all in all, is a mighty piece of propaganda praising Queen Elizabeth. 
For me, the final scene of Elizabeth dressed in white, standing on the map of her kingdom, seemed right because it echoed the imagery found in the Ditchley Portrait. Like I said, I personally don't feel it's that much of stretch. Unlike the Elizabeth's coronation scene, the coloring is slightly different, but the content is very similar. Once again, the filmmakers attempt to fill the same dignity and majesty that was present in the original paintings in the scene. The music, the costuming, the camera angles, all contribute to these magnificently beautiful visual scenes. For me, as I'm always searching for a "painting connection," I appreciated and enjoyed the effort. How about you? Or am I once again theorizing over visual minutia? Perhaps... but you have to admit, they're excellent theories!

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