The film brought Australian actress Blanchett to international attention. She won several awards for her portrayal of Elizabeth, notably a BAFTA and a Golden Globe in 1998. The film was named the 1998 BAFTA Award for Best British Film and was nominated for seven awards at the 71st Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress, winning Best Makeup.
The film sees a young Elizabeth elevated to the throne on the death of her half-sister Mary I, who had imprisoned her. Elizabeth's reign over the divided and bankrupt realm is perceived as weak and under threat of invasion by France or Spain. For the future stability and security of the crown she is urged by advisor William Cecil to marry; she has suitors in the Catholic Philip II of Spain and the French Henri, Duc d'Anjou. However, she instead embarks on an affair with the wholly unsuitable Robert Dudley.
Elizabeth must counter threats from within, such as the powerful Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, and from the armies of Mary of Guise garrisoned in Scotland. She also faces plots from Rome directed by Pope Pius V. Assisted by her "spymaster" Francis Walsingham, she puts down the threats both internal and external, ruthlessly executing the plotters. Elizabeth eventually ends her and Robert's affair and resolves to marry nobody except England. The film ends with Elizabeth assuming the persona of the "Virgin Queen", and saying: "I am married to England," initiating England's Golden Age.
In 1558, Catholic Queen Mary dies of a uterine tumour. Mary's Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth, under house arrest for conspiracy charges, is freed and crowned the Queen of England.
As briefed by her adviser William Cecil, Elizabeth inherits a distressed England besieged by debts, crumbling infrastructure, hostile neighbours and treasonous nobles within her administration, chief among them the Duke of Norfolk. Cecil advises Elizabeth to marry, produce an heir, and secure her rule. Unimpressed with her suitors, Elizabeth delays her decision and continues her secret affair with Lord Robert Dudley while Cecil appoints Francis Walsingham, a Protestant exile returned from France, to act as Elizabeth's bodyguard and adviser.
Mary of Guise lands an additional 4,000 French troops in neighbouring Scotland. Unfamiliar with military strategy and browbeaten by Norfolk at the war council, Elizabeth orders a military response, which proves disastrous when the younger, ill-trained English forces are defeated by the professional French soldiers. Walsingham tells Elizabeth that Catholic lords and priests intentionally deprived Elizabeth's army of proper soldiers and used their defeat to argue for Elizabeth's removal. Realizing the depth of the conspiracy against her and her dwindling options, Elizabeth accepts Mary of Guise's conditions, to consider marrying her nephew Henry of France.
To stabilize her rule and heal England's religious divisions, Elizabeth proposes the Act of Uniformity, which unites English Christians under the Church of England and severs their connection to the Vatican. In response to the Act's passage, the Vatican sends a priest to England to aid Norfolk and his cohorts in their growing plot to overthrow Elizabeth. Unaware of the plot, Elizabeth meets Henry of France but ignores his advances in favour of Lord Robert. William Cecil confronts Elizabeth over her indecisiveness about marrying and reveals Lord Robert is married to another woman. Elizabeth rejects Henry's marriage proposal when she discovers he is a cross-dresser and confronts Lord Robert about his secrets, fracturing their idyllic affair and banishing him from her private residence.
Elizabeth survives an assassination attempt, whose evidence implicates Mary of Guise. Elizabeth sends Walsingham to secretly meet with Mary in Scotland, under the guise of once again planning to marry Henry. Instead, Walsingham assassinates Guise, inciting French enmity against Elizabeth. When William Cecil orders her to solidify relations with the Spanish, Elizabeth dismisses him from her service, choosing instead to follow her own counsel.
Walsingham warns of another plot to kill Elizabeth, spearheaded by the priest from Rome carrying letters of conspiracy. Under Elizabeth's orders, Walsingham apprehends the priest, from whom he learns the names of the conspirators and a Vatican agreement to elevate Norfolk to the English crown if he weds Mary, Queen of Scots. Walsingham arrests Norfolk, and executes him and every conspirator except Lord Robert, whom Elizabeth allows to live, as a reminder to never be blinded by romance again.
Drawing inspiration from the divine, Elizabeth cuts her hair and models her appearance after the Virgin Mary. Proclaiming herself married to England, she ascends the throne as "the Virgin Queen".Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I of England
Geoffrey Rush as Francis Walsingham
Joseph Fiennes as Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester
Richard Attenborough as William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley
Christopher Eccleston as Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk
Kathy Burke as Mary I of England
Fanny Ardant as Mary of Guise
Vincent Cassel as Henry, Duc d'Anjou
Emily Mortimer as Kat Ashley
Kelly Macdonald as Isabel Knollys
John Gielgud as Pope Pius V
Daniel Craig as John Ballard
James Frain as Álvaro de la Quadra
Edward Hardwicke as Henry FitzAlan, 19th Earl of Arundel
Jamie Foreman as Earl of Sussex
Terence Rigby as Bishop Stephen Gardiner
Angus Deayton as Waad, Chancellor of the Exchequer
Amanda Ryan as Lettice Howard
Kenny Doughty as Sir Thomas Elyot
George Yiasoumi as Philip II of Spain
Wayne Sleep as Dance Tutor
Alfie Allen as Arundel's Son
Lily Allen as Lady-in-waiting
The costuming and shot composition of the coronation scene are based on Elizabeth's coronation portrait.
Kapur's original choice for the role was Emily Watson, however she turned it down. Cate Blanchett was chosen to play Elizabeth after Kapur saw a trailer of Oscar and Lucinda. According to the director's commentary, Kapur mentioned that the role of the Pope (played by Sir John Gielgud) was originally offered to, and accepted by, Marlon Brando. However, plans changed when Kapur noted that many on set would probably be concerned that Brando would be sharing the set with them for two days. Later, when Gielgud had taken the role, Kapur at one point suggested (in vain) that the Pope's accent should be Italian; he added that every British actor within earshot was horrified that any director was asking Sir John Gielgud to speak in an accent that "wasn't John Gielgud".
A large proportion of the indoor filming, representing the royal palace, was conducted in various corners of Durham Cathedral—its unique nave pillars are clearly identifiable.
The film was received well by critics and the public, it holds an 81% "fresh" rating on film aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes based on 59 film critic reviews. The site's consensus was: "No mere historical drama, Elizabeth is a rich, suspenseful journey into the heart of British Royal politics and features a typically outstanding performance from Cate Blanchett."
The film takes considerable factual liberties and misconstrues several historic events to depict them as having occurred in the early years of Elizabeth's reign. Furthermore, the timeline of events prior to her accession is also inaccurate. For instance, the film depicts Mary I of England as being pregnant prior to Elizabeth's imprisonment. In actuality, Elizabeth was imprisoned on 18 March 1554 whereas it was not announced that the Queen was believed to be pregnant until September of that same year. Elizabeth was also released from the Tower of London in May, again, before Mary was thought to be pregnant.
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester was also imprisoned in the Tower under suspicion of involvement with the Wyatt Revolt. However, he was imprisoned before Elizabeth.
Elizabeth was put under house arrest at Woodstock, not Hatfield, and did not remain there until her sister's death. On 17 April 1555 she was summoned from this location to Hampton Court to be with Mary during the Queen's delivery. When the Queen did not deliver, Elizabeth remained at court though 18 October 1555 until after it had become apparent that Mary was not pregnant and after the Queen's husband Philip II of Spain had gone abroad. It was only after this time that Elizabeth was finally able to return to Hatfield.
Mary's false pregnancy was not caused by a cancerous tumor or a tumor of any kind. Mary had another false pregnancy between the fall of 1557, and March 1558 that is not mentioned in the movie, and she died on the 17 November 1558, four years after Elizabeth's imprisonment in the Tower.
The Papist Ridolfi Plot to assassinate Elizabeth and place Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk on the throne did not take place until 1571, 12 years into her reign. There is no mention of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was implicated in the plot, nor of the eponymous Roberto Ridolfi, who was a co-conspirator.
Although the idea of marriage to Henry, Duke of Anjou was briefly entertained in 1570, Elizabeth never actually met him and there is no evidence that he was a transvestite, as depicted in the film. It was his brother Francis, Duke of Anjou, 22 years younger than Elizabeth, whom she seriously courted beginning in 1578, when she was 45 years old and he was 23.
Mary of Guise was not assassinated by Walsingham, but died naturally from edema on 11 June 1560.
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester is wrongly depicted as having been a co-conspirator in the plot against Elizabeth. In fact, he remained one of Elizabeth's closest friends until his death in 1588, long after their romantic relationship had ended.
William Cecil, Baron Burghley was not an old man when Elizabeth began her reign, he was only thirteen years older than her. Likewise she never compelled him to retire, as is depicted in the film. He remained her chief advisor and was Lord High Treasurer from 1572 until his death in 1598.
At the end of the film, Elizabeth is shown as having decided permanently against marriage. In fact, she entertained the idea of marriage with several European monarchs well into middle-age. These included her former brother-in-law, Philip II of Spain, Archduke Charles of Austria, Eric XIV of Sweden, Adolphus, Duke of Holstein, and the Valois princes Francis and Henry (later King Henry III of France and Poland.)
Elizabeth only began to paint her face white with lead pigment after she was left scarred from an attack of smallpox in 1563.
The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights accused the film of anti-Catholicism, stating that the film gives the "impression that the religious strife was all the doing of the Catholic Church," noting that the review in The New York Times considered it "resolutely anti-Catholic" complete with a "scheming pope" and repeating the charge made in the Buffalo News that "every single Catholic in the film is dark, cruel and devious."
Elizabeth premiered in September 1998 at the Venice Film Festival; it was also shown at the Toronto International Film Festival. It premiered in London on 2 October 1998 and it premiered in the United States on 13 October 1998. It opened in the United Kingdom on 23 October 1998 and opened in limited release in the United States in nine cinemas on 6 November 1998, grossing $275,131. Its widest release in the United States and Canada was in 624 cinemas, and its largest weekend gross throughout its run in cinemas in the US and Canada was $3.9 million in 516 cinemas, ranking No.9 at the box office. Elizabeth went on to gross $30 million in the United States and Canada, and a total of $82.1 million worldwide.71st Academy Awards: Best Makeup (Jenny Shircore)
BAFTA Awards: Best British Film (Alison Owen, Tim Bevan), Best Film Music (David Hirschfelder), Best Cinematography (Remi Adefarasin), Best Makeup/Hair (Jenny Shircore), Best Supporting Actor (Geoffrey Rush), Best Actress (Cate Blanchett)
Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards: Best Actress (Cate Blanchett), Breakthrough Artist (Joseph Fiennes)
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards: Best Actress (Cate Blanchett)
4th Empire Awards: Best Actress (Cate Blanchett)
Golden Globe Awards: Best Actress – Motion Picture – Drama (Cate Blanchett)
Las Vegas Film Critics Society Awards: Most Promising Actress (Cate Blanchett)
London Critics Circle Film Awards: Actress of the Year (Cate Blanchett), British Producer of the Year (Alison Owen, Tim Bevan)
National Board of Review: Best Director (Shekhar Kapur)
Online Film Critics Society Awards: Best Actress (Cate Blanchett)
Satellite Awards: Best Costume Design (Alexandra Byrne), Best Actress – Drama (Cate Blanchett)
Southeastern Film Critics Association Awards: Best Actress (Cate Blanchett)
Toronto Film Critics Association Awards: Best Actress (Cate Blanchett)
Venice Film Festival: Max Factor Award (Jenny Shircore)
Academy Awards: Best Actress (Cate Blanchett), Best Art Direction (Art Direction: John Myhre; Set Decoration: Peter Howitt), Best Cinematography (Remi Adefarasin), Best Costume Design (Alexandra Byrne), Best Original Score (David Hirschfelder), Best Picture (Alison Owen, Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan)
BAFTAs: Best Costume Design (Alexandra Byrne), Best Editing (Jill Bilcock), Best Picture (Alison Owen, Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan), Best Art Direction (John Myhre), Best Original Screenplay (Michael Hirst), Best Direction (Shekhar Kapur)
Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards: Best Film
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards: Best Cinematography (Remi Adefarasin), Best Original Score (David Hirschfelder)
Golden Globe Awards: Best Director (Shekhar Kapur), Best Motion Picture – Drama
Satellite Awards: Best Director (Shekhar Kapur), Best Motion Picture – Drama (Alison Owen, Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan), Best Art Direction (John Myhre)
This film's sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), also directed by Shekhar Kapur, starring Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I and Geoffrey Rush as Francis Walsingham, deals with latter part of Elizabeth's reign and another love interest that was not to come to fruition (Walter Raleigh).