Great British Heritage Films: Elizabeth, Modernity & Nationality

Continuing with my series of British heritage articles – as stated in my introductory piece, ‘British Heritage Films: Portrayal of…

Dene Walker



Continuing with my series of British heritage articles – as stated in my introductory piece, ‘British Heritage Films: Portrayal of Nationality and Modernity‘ – my second evaluation is of Elizabeth (1998) and the extent of its engagement with modernity, as well as its portrayal of nationality.

Elizabeth’s apparent disengagement from historicity is presented by Higson (2003) as a valid argument for what he feels is, in actuality, a modern ‘exploration of Englishness, a historical meditation on the making of modern England and the construction of a central icon of the national heritage’ (p198). Higson believes the film defies its own official description as a very ‘English’ affair, but rather is a response to New Labour’s ‘rebranding’ of Britain in the 1990s, and he even links the film’s popularity with that of the tragic death in 1997 of Princess Diana, a seemingly ‘modern Virgin Queen’. In this sense, Higson (2003) believes Elizabeth to be essentially non-historical in its ‘over-embellishing’ of English patriotism, but appears rather more as an exaggeration or caricature of 16th century England.

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To further his argument, Higson (2003) draws attention to the important fact that Elizabeth is directed by the Indian Shekpar Kapur, and features Australian actors in two of the principal roles; Cate Blanchett, as Queen Elizabeth, and Geoffrey Rush as her trusted ‘spymaster’, Francis Walsingham. Along with an assortment of other foreign-born actors and crew-members, Elizabeth constitutes, in Higson’s words, a ‘post-colonial make-up of the film’s most important creative workers’ (p199). Higson boldly suggests the film not to be an offering of English national heritage but rather a ‘revenge of the colonials’, as expressed by Kapur himself (in Higson: 2003). It is through this reasoning that Higson suggests that the international cast and crew cannot be held accountable for Elizabeth being a modern representation, owing to Kapur’s supposed ‘lack’ of knowledge of British culture and history.


The film, it could be argued, is therefore intrinsically rooted in modernity: it is a film from the view of an outsider, the ‘Other’. Given this, concessions such as the use of time-space compression of significant events in Elizabeth’s life are accepted and indulged. For example, events which occurred twenty years apart are given little to no reference in the film and are included only to fuel the melodrama of the personal stories of the characters. Perhaps most notable is Elizabeth’s interaction with Robert Dudley and the Duke of Anjou.

In reality, Elizabeth had never met the Duke and had, in fact, been proposed to by his younger brother. However, the character is included to highlight the inappropriateness of her attraction to Dudley and to reiterate her expected role of a Queen, to be married. Finally, the Duke’s supposed transvestism adds a dimension of comedy to this scenario and makes him appear even more ineffectual in the eyes of Elizabeth compared to Dudley.


Higson, A. 2003. English Heritage, English Cinema: Costume drama since 1980 (Chapter 6: Elizabeth). Oxford University Press.

Higson. A. 2006. Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film: In: L. D. Ed. Fire were Started: British cinema and Thatcherism. 2nd ed. London. Wallflower Press. P91 – 109.