Working with a film: Elizabeth


The object here is to connect this film to what you have read about British history and social conditions. The tools of literary analysis will help to the focus your attention on the messages and intentions of the film. You will find a review of these basic terms of literary analysis in the Toolbox on our website under Enjoying Fiction: literary analysis. These include character, setting, plot, theme/intention, audience, and in this film, costume. 


Getting started

Search the internet to find out more about Elizabeth I. What kind of person and ruler do historians suggest she was? Here are some words you can search together with Elizabeth I that might help you get started.

  • Spanish Armada
  • Reformation
  • Bloody Mary
  • Patron of the arts
  • Virgin Queen
  • Golden Age
  • Tudor Dynasty
  • Church of England
  • Fashionably pale
  • Cult of virginity

Now make a portrait of Elizabeth based on what you have learned. This could be a drawing, a character analysis, a personal text, poem, in story or drama form etc.

Form groups of four and share and discuss your portraits.



It is important to realise that the film Elizabeth is not always historically accurate. As one critic put it, “the film is loosely based on the early reign of Elizabeth I”. But what the film does do well is capture the spirit, atmosphere and political climate of the times. It also shows us just how deep the divide between Catholics and Protestants was.


The story

Henry VIII is dead (1547), and a little over a decade later, in 1558, his successor, Queen Mary, dies of an illness. Queen Mary was staunchly Catholic, while her half sister, Elizabeth, has been raised as a Protestant. Elizabeth has been jailed for conspiring against her sister, a trumped up charge made by Queen Mary’s advisors because they fear Elizabeth and her Protestant connections. However, after Mary’s death, Elizabeth is crowned queen and soon many suitors propose marriage to her (Elizabeth does have a sweetheart, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester). The proposals of marriage are more the result of political alliances than any great feelings of love. Her advisors, chief among them William Cecil, encourage her to marry one or the other of the suitors so she can secure her throne. One of the things the film shows so well is just how fragile a foundation Elizabeth’s rule rested upon when she took the throne.

Elizabeth has to grow into her role as queen very quickly. Members of her own court, the Duke of Norfolk, for example, conspire against her. Perhaps he wants to be king, while one who would not mind being queen is Mary of Guise, who is Governor of Scotland and a definite threat to Elizabeth.

Elizabeth allies herself with Sir Francis Walsingham and Dudley falls out of favour with the queen. After ridding herself of the main conspirators, Elizabeth decides to become the virgin queen and rules England for 40 years or so. This is the start of England’s Golden Age.


Cast of main characters:

Elizabeth I of England – Cate Blanchett

Francis Walsingham – Geoffrey Rush

Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk – Christopher Eccleston

Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester – Joseph Fiennes

Mary I of England – Kathy Burke

Kat Ashley – Emily Mortimer

Henry FitzAlan, 19th Earl of Arundel – Edward Hardwicke

John Ballard – Daniel Craig

William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley – Richard Attenborough

Mary of Guise – Fanny Ardant

Henri, Duc d'Anjou – Vincent Cassel

Monsieur de Foix – Eric Cantona


Watching the film

Watch the film until the end of the scene where Elizabeth meets with Queen Mary and walks through the chamber full of men of the government (or “the wolves” as Mary calls them – around time count 19.02.) Stop the film and discuss the following points in groups. Write down answers for each question that you can later share with the whole class.

  1. What effect does the setting throughout this part of the film have? What contrasts in setting have there been? What is the overall atmosphere?
  2. What have we learned about the political state of affairs in England so far?
  3. How does the film depict Elizabeth up to this point? How is Elizabeth portrayed  (think of mannerisms, comparison to others, costume, setting, dialogue, facial expressions, body language, camera angle etc.)?
  4. What impression are we left of religion at this point in the film?


After you have seen the whole film

Discussion topics

Form groups of four. Work with a least one question among each of the following headings.




Character is central to the development of films and plays. Have each member of your group choose one of the film’s characters and prepare a short explanation of what role he or she plays in the film. As each character has a place in history, read up on that person’s history and compare what the film depicts with what the history books say. Are there any major deviations between the two? If so, why do you think the writer/director chose to portray the character in this adapted way?


We can learn about characters in many ways, some of the main ways in film are listed below. Discuss how the character you chose in question 1 is depicted through some of these techniques:

  • The way they dress
  • Their actions
  • Their reactions to others
  • Others’ reactions to them
  • What they say (dialogue)
  • What others say about them
  • Facial expressions
  • Body language
  • Symbols (something is focused on that reflects the type of person the character is meant to be, e.g. virgin/white, freedom/bird)
  • Lighting (for example, if shown in shadows and darkness the character may take on an evil, non-trustworthy air)
  • Camera angle (looking at a character top down often makes him or her look small, perhaps even guilty, while a camera looking up at the character often provides a positive air, showing strength)


Characters are often described as round or flat. A round character is full, easy to believe in and develops through the course of the film. The flat character does not develop and often represents one character type or trait. Which characters do you think are round and which are flat? How would you rate the characters on the following scale?



Compare the film Elizabeth with the portrait of Elizabeth that you made before you saw the film. Where are you observations similar, where do they differ?


Discuss why you think Queen Elizabeth chose to become The Virgin Queen.



You have already discussed setting when you stopped the film for your initial discussion. Now summarise the effect you think setting has on the entire film and the overall impression you are left with.



The plot is important in any film. In a historical drama, however, we are often aware of the outcome, as is the case in this film where we know (or should know!) that Elizabeth survives and will be queen for some 40 years. How does the film maintain our interest when it is basically telling us a story we already know? Here you will want to look at how the story is told, major scenes etc.


Period piece

The definition of period piece is: a novel, film, etc. set in an earlier time period, in which careful attention has been given to the details of its historical setting, considered typical of the period in which it was created. Period piece is often used to specify a film regarded as being of mere historical interest and without lasting artistic merit.

Discuss in groups whether you find the film to be more interesting for its historical presentation or because it has lasting artistic merit.




The overall intention of the film is to tell the story of Elizabeth I becoming Queen of England and to show an important part of British history. Which of the following do you think best describes other aspects the film is about?

  • Religious influence
  • Making a commitment
  • Political intrigue
  • The ways of men
  • War
  • Loyalty
  • Bravery
  • Powerful femininity
  • Treachery

Write down your individual answers in a sentence or two and compare answers in your group. Can you think of anything else you feel the film is about?

How is religion depicted in this film? What parallels can we draw with our contemporary world (think of religious movements in the USA and elsewhere, and other current religious conflicts)?



Often we can learn a lot about a film (or novel for that matter) if we consider who the director is aiming his film at, who he or she is trying to reach. Needless to say, this is often the public at large, but other times the film will appeal to a certain segment of the population more than another.

  1. Who do you think is the intended audience for Elizabeth?
  2. Does this film appeal to a Norwegian audience?
  3. Some critics have accused this film of English jingoism. Look up the word so you know what it means. Do you agree or disagree with this?


Writing tasks

  1. Write a full character analysis of at least two characters in the film and discuss their relation to one another (you can use your work from questions 1, 2 and 3 under character in your essay).
  2. A critic has called the film Protestant propaganda. Write an essay supporting or disagreeing with this point of view.
  3. Write a review of this film for your local newspaper, keeping in mind your local audience (who, of course, speak English for this occasion).
  4. A film will inevitably show conflicts between characters. What are the main conflicts in this film? Choose one of them and write a short description of the conflict and its outcome.


Practice for the oral exam

You may be asked to talk about the book you have read or a film you have seen on your oral exam. One of the traps pupils often fall into is to simply tell the plot, or retell the whole story. The external examiner will be looking for something more than this. In fact, if more than one candidate is talking about the same film, the examiner may find it uninspiring to have to sit and listen to the same retelling of plot and events from different candidates. You should try to do something more. How should you talk about the film?


For this film:

  • As we said, don’t retell.
  • State briefly what the main point of the film is.
  • Explain why this was a good film for your course.
  • Go into detail about one or two special aspects about the film, e.g. Elizabeth/Dudley; Elizabeth’s suitors; Elizabeth becoming the virgin queen.
  • Give your overall opinion of the film, with reasons, as if you were a film critic.

Work in pairs. One of you plays the examiner, the other is the candidate. Talk about the film as if you were in an exam situation.

Extra tasks

  1. Watch the sequel, Elizabeth The Golden Age to complete the story of The Virgin Queen. What have the two films taught you about this period of British history?
  2. If you are fascinated by the story of Queen Elizabeth 1, find the mini series called Elizabeth 1 starring Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons. Compare how Helen Mirren and Cate Blanchett portray the queen. Which performance do you prefer?