In 1558, the Roman Catholic Mary I of England dies of a cancerous tumour in her uterus, leaving her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth as queen. Elizabeth had previously been jailed for a supposed conspiracy to murder Mary but has now been freed for her coronation. The film shows Elizabeth being courted by suitors (including Henri, Duc d'Anjou, the future King Henry III of France, whom she rejects) and urged by William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley to marry, which, as he states, would secure her throne. Instead, she has a secret affair with her childhood sweetheart, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. The affair is, however, no secret from Cecil—who makes it clear that a monarch has no private life.
Elizabeth deals with various threats to her reign, including The Duke of Norfolk; her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, who conspires to have her murdered; agent of Scotland, Mary of Guise, who allies with France to attack England's forces. At the end of the film, Norfolk is executed for his conspiracy and Mary of Guise is assassinated by Elizabeth's advisor, Francis Walsingham.
Elizabeth permanently banishes Dudley from her private presence when she finds out that he is married; as depicted in the sequel, Elizabeth then gives up ever having sex again, feeling that such relations could give a man too much power over her. Moreover, cutting off her relations with Dudley is part of the process by which she becomes increasingly tough and assertive—in one scene she carefully prepares and rehearses the speech she would deliver to a recalcitrant Parliament and force through her religious reforms.
She also becomes capable of occasional ruthless behaviour—as in unflinchingly ordering the execution of those who she considers dangerous to her rule, as well as taking up as her right-hand man the Machiavellian Walsingham, who thinks nothing of torturing people or killing with his own hands.
All this is a considerable change from the warm-hearted, rather romantic girl which Elizabeth was in the early parts of the film; remaining such would have been incompatible with being a queen who actually ruled and dominated the men around her, and her transformation is a major theme of the film.
The film ends with Elizabeth assuming the white-faced and gowned persona of the 'Virgin Queen', and initiating England's Golden Age.
Elizabeth is a 1998 biographical film written by Michael Hirst, directed by Shekhar Kapur, and starring Cate Blanchett in the title role of Queen Elizabeth I of England, alongside Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Fiennes, Sir John Gielgud, Fanny Ardant and Richard Attenborough. This 1998 film is loosely based on the early years of Elizabeth's reign. In 2007, Blanchett reprised the role in the sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, covering the later part of her reign.