Archive for April, 2000

Historic Blunders

Monday, April 3rd, 2000

Apr 03, 2000
Nehru in a fling with Mirabehn? A salt march to Calcutta? If all films could twist facts like ‘Elizabeth’…

Passions wither with age. So I haven’t watched any movie in any of the various Delhi film festivals in the last few years. I haven’t made it a point to see all the “important” films (Earth, The English Patient, Dahan). So I got to see Shekhar Kapur’s controversy-ridden multiple-Oscar-nominee film Elizabeth only last week.

I don’t want to dwell in any detail on the aesthetic qualities of the film, which are basically very-poor-man’s-Ivan-The-Terrible-meets-road-company-Godfather: when in doubt, show dark castle interiors and turn up the choral music. But this is an Indian director who has made good in the West. And hopefully, Kapur’s success will make it easier for other Indians who have the talent to crack the global cinema market. May the force be with Shekhar.

However, what is astonishing about Elizabeth is its treatment of facts.

It traces the transformation of a callow maiden who has queenship thrust upon her into the legendary Virgin Queen. The film ends with the line “Elizabeth ruled for 40 more years”, so it’s clear it covers the first five years of her rule (1558-1563). Problem is: almost nothing that happens in Elizabeth took place in those five years. To take a random example, the Duke of Anjou is shown as a contender for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. This is true: he was a suitor. Except that, being 20 years younger than Elizabeth, Anjou was a toddler in 1560.

The most memorable character in the film is the mysterious Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s consiglieri. He is a historical figure, the man who set up a super-efficient espionage network for the queen. But. The real Walsingham entered Elizabeth’s employ only 10 years after the film ends. The film claims that Walsingham was appointed as soon as Elizabeth ascended the throne, in 1558. But at that time, he was only a 26-year-old lawyer, hardly the ruthless middle-aged assassin portrayed by Geoffrey Rush (who, as usual, is splendid).

On to the Richard Attenborough character, Sir William Cecil. The film begins with Cecil as Elizabeth’s most trusted confidant, and ends with her forcing a Voluntary Retirement Scheme on him. This is as far from the truth as is possible. Cecil remained Elizabeth’s seniormost bureaucrat and advisor till his death in 1598. In fact, he was responsible for much of the queen’s foreign policy, managed the exchequer, and was in charge of military and naval preparations to defeat the Spanish armada in 1588. About the only thing that the film gets correct about Cecil is that he hated Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the man Elizabeth slept with, according to the film.

Was Dudley Elizabeth’s lover? History’s jury is out on that one, though it is well-documented that Dudley had the run of the queen’s chambers, and could take liberties with her that no one else dared to. As Dudley, Joseph Fiennes reprises his role from Shakespeare in Love: brooding eyes, haunted air, romantic aura thick enough to be cut with a knife. “At the heart of (the film) is a wonderful love story,” the film’s website quotes one of the producers of the film as saying. But the film deletes the one interesting twist this love story had. It notes that Dudley was already married when he met Elizabeth. What it doesn’t mention is that a few years later, Dudley’s wife died under mysterious circumstances. Indeed, so much suspicion for his wife’s death attached to Dudley that it became impossible for Elizabeth to marry him after that. Surely, this would have added depth and darkness to the film Dudley? Or does this sort of thing not gel with Joseph Fiennes’ image?

The film’s climactic sequence is a series of arrests and killings of anti-Elizabeth conspirators intercut with the queen praying, a straight lift from (or tribute to, depending on your point of view) the climax of Godfather. According to the film, the conspirators were the Dukes of Norfolk, Sussex and Arundel, with help from Spain, Mary of Guise, the French-born mother of Mary Queen of Scots, the Pope, and, of all people, Robert Dudley! The plot involved overthrowing Elizabeth and replacing her with Mary Queen of Scots, who Norfolk would marry. In the film, Walsingham gets to know of the plot, arrests the Dukes in time, and kills Mary of Guise and the Spanish ambassador to England. The Dukes are executed, but Elizabeth pardons Dudley, thus condemning him to a life of endless guilt. The whole thing appears to have taken place in 1562 or 63.

What really happened? Well, Mary of Guise died of natural causes in 1560. Sussex and Arundel were noblemen loyal to Elizabeth. The Papal Bull excommunicating Elizabeth came in 1570. The plot that involved Norfolk marrying Mary Queen of Scots was blown in 1569, but Norfolk was pardoned by Elizabeth. It was only after he was caught plotting again in 1571 that his head was lopped off. Dudley was never involved in any plot against Elizabeth, and was her favourite till his death in 1588. And of course, Walsingham joined the queen’s service in 1573. The major conspiracy involving Mary Queen of Scots that he foiled was the Appington Plot of 1586!

How far should art imitate life? How much can you experiment with truth before it becomes fiction? The film’s website quotes producer Alison Owen on this: “Although it is a film that is very true in spirit to the Tudor times, historical veracity has not been our main point of contact. We have not changed facts but manipulated time periods. In doing so, we have given our film so many things to attract an audience.” If Richard Attenborough had felt the same way, he would have had Chaurichaura happening the day after Jallianwalla Bagh, Nehru would have had an affair with Mirabehn, and Ben Kingsley would have marched to Calcutta to make salt and halt the riots. That would surely have made for a Gandhi more attractive to the audience!

How much should history pander to shortening attention spans?