When picking best performances, making a career montage, or just plainly discussing the career of an actor, one must confront the notion of the breakout performance. More specifically, what was (insert actor’s name here)’s breakout? Sometimes, it’s a point that can be contested. Depending on who you ask, Jessica Chastain’s breakout can be anything from The Tree of Life to The Help, she had so many films come out in one year that her exact moment of breaking out can’t be exactly pinpointed (for the record, it’s Malick’s film in my opinion). But sometimes, there’s a performance that is utterly undeniable, one that made a career in a single two hour stretch, catapulting the actor in question to fame. There is their career before the film and after the film. Rooney Mara in David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo springs to mind here.
Cate Blanchett’s turn in Shekar Kapur’s Elizabeth indeed fits into the second category. Her performance as the virgin queen and daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boelyn is the type indeed born of great, miraculous discovery. It perhaps even overshadows the memory of Kapur’s film itself. As breakout performances often do, it’s largely memorable because the film entirely pins and indeed works on the efforts of a single person. Here, that’s indeed Blanchett.
Kapur finds the tone for his film in the notion that Elizabeth’s rise to the throne was one of the most chaotic, with constant threats of invasion and competition for her throne. His film is far from the typical period drama, with much more sex and blood than one would usually expect. Kapur’s environment of chaos, however, also means that there is frequently too much happening on screen. The film deviates heavily from history, centering much more on the dramatic than factual aspects, which removes any kind of orienting point in the narrative that may have once existed. The costumes are dazzling, the sets are gorgeous, the camera glides along, and the editing is energetic, punctuated by grizzly violence; but the sheet majesty of it all proves to be so large that one is unsure where to look. But, somewhat tellingly, Blanchett and her steady gaze, charting a journey from naive vulnerability to world-weary experience, remain a grounding force in each scene. She reveals nuance where the script does not, subtle changes in psychology that make the journey less than superficial. By the end of the film, Elizabeth is not only unrecognisable because of her painted face or tamed hair, but also her gaze.
“Observe, Lord Burghley, I am married… to England.”