Thursday, January 5, 2012
"Body Natural" and "Body Politic," or, What I Thought about While Watching a Movie
The movie seemed to jump around from one genre to another. Sometimes it was historical epic, sometimes it was spy flick, sometimes it was love story, sometimes it was philosophical drama.
As history, it's clear the movie took some license with events to improve the story, and especially that the timeline for events was collapsed. The broad strokes are accurate enough; the struggle between Mary I and Elizabeth over the succession to the throne was real, as was the constant pressure on Elizabeth to choose a marriage with political benefits. I admire the filmmakers for finding a way to make Elizabeth's efforts to create religious compromise interesting as a plot device, and I liked their portrayal of her initial ineptitude as a ruler, taking advice that led to a disastrous invasion of Scotland. On other important points, though, the movie definitely distorts history; there's no evidence Mary of Guise was assassinated, and Robert Dudley most certainly was not involved in a plot to remove Elizabeth from the throne. Dudley apparently remained as one of Elizabeth's favorites for the rest of his life.
Speaking of the treasonous plot - honestly, I was confused at times about who was allied with whom and with how Elizabeth and Walsingham knew who was involved. I got that there were two separate but intertwined plots perpetrated by the French and the Spanish, with involvement by key English figures high in the government. But wait...there's really nothing historically accurate about the plot (or plots) as portrayed in the movie. The fictional plot pulled together pieces of several actual events and made a mash-up that, while it was narratively tidy and entertaining, did violence to the historical facts of the reputations for several men, including Norfolk (who seems to be the instigator of the whole thing), Walsingham (who comes off as a completely Machiavellian character except for his loyalty to Elizabeth), and of course, Dudley.
That brings me to the thing I found most interesting about the movie: the divide between the "body natural" and the "body politic." This contrast was brought out most sharply through the love story as it was portrayed in the movie. Although Elizabeth clearly loves Robert, she is constantly bombarded with offers of marriage to foreign princes, offers that would have political consequences. From the moment she becomes queen, she is continually harassed by her advisors that she needs to "marry and produce an heir." For someone in Elizabeth's position, consideration of what her "body natural" wants always has to come second to what her "body politic" must do to hold on to power. I believe that principle extends to Robert (the real one) as well; his desire to stay in the queen's favor (or maybe I should say, his desire to avoid the queen's wrath) clearly took precedence over the desire for his own home and family - at least for 18 years. (I should also remember, though, that he didn't deny himself totally; there was that long-term affair that produced a son...)
That theme came to its crescendo at the end of the film when Elizabeth is physically shedding all remnants of her "body natural"; her hair is chopped off, her face is painted white, and she becomes the embodiment of the "body politic." While the movie no doubt makes this more dramatic than it really was, I also have no doubt that Elizabeth made that transformation - but she kept stringing Dudley along, just to have a connection to that "body natural" she once had.