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Australian actress Abbie Cornish plays Bess, close confidante and mortal version of 16th century English Queen Elizabeth I, played by another Australian, Cate Blanchett; Abbie found the most potent guide to the character in an old portrait painting, she tells Andrew L. Urban.

Elizabeth Throckmorton stares out of an old portrait that captures the essence of her persona, says Australian actress Abbie Cornish who portrays the 16th century Lady in Waiting and the closest confidante to Queen Elizabeth I, in Elizabeth: the Golden Age. (Ironically, neither of the two Elizabeths were ever called Elizabeth. The young courtier was known as Bess, and the latter as Her Majesty.)

“I found that wonderful old portrait and felt her coming through that image,” says Abbie as she concludes a day of interviews in Sydney about the film, following a breakfast press conference where she was joined by the film’s director Shekhar Kapur, and two of her co-stars, Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush. “In the portrait I saw a gentle, sensitive young woman with delicate hands and fingers, with clear blue eyes… there is something dreamy about her. And her lips, in a slight smile, are a little pursed, a constraint that comes perhaps from being at Court .. . her obligations. That portrait inspired me more than anything.”

"sees things in a universal, endless sort of way"

But Abbie also has endless admiration for Kapur. “He’s a dream … he brings a spirituality to the work and sees things in a universal, endless sort of way. At my age, that sort of vision expands your view of the world. I felt something special about him when I first met him.”

To complete her research into Bess, Abbie looked up books and spoke to historians, which all helped round out a picture of her and her life, before, during and after the events depicted in the film. Her pregnancy in the summer of 1591 led to the secret marriage to Sir Walter Raleigh. She gave birth to a baby boy named Damerei, after Sir Walter's claimed ancestors, and immediately returned to court. The child died six months later during the October heat and plague. Indeed, her relationship with Raleigh is at the heart of the film’s emotional narrative about Elizabeth I. That, and Elizabeth’s duality – the conflict between her mortal and divine self image, are the elements that fascinate Kapur the most. To him, Abbie Cornish was the perfect ‘mortal’ self to Blanchett’s ‘divine’ or Royal side.

Abbie wasn’t alone in doing research into the people and period of the film; Cate Blanchett had kept all her notes from the 1998 film in which she plays the younger Elizabeth I, and found them invaluable, but also read more to fill out the Queen’s later life. And Geoffrey Rush made a point of learning about his character, Lord Walsingham, the Queen’s advisor who makes a tragic mistake when he urges her to execute Mary Queen of Scots (a small but superb role for Samantha Morton). The execution of a Catholic Royal gave King Philip II of Spain the excuse to attack Protestant England.

Abbie Cornish, well aware of the dangers of having too definite expectations of a movie from just reading the script, found herself in safe hands with Shekhar Kapur. “In retrospect, the first thing I think about the experience of making Elizabeth: The Golden Age is working with him. He brought a fluidity and intense emotion to it all, including the music, the cinematography, the costumes … everything. He’s very wise and a true artist. He’s not locked into anything and each day is a new journey, which is rare for someone as experienced as he is. So I felt safe and I took more risks than I have taken in a film before.”

"The diversity is dazzling and challenging"

After the Sydney and Melbourne premieres of Elizabeth (November 3 & 4), Abbie flew to Europe to begin work on a 9th century Viking drama, Last Battle Dreamer for director Menno Meyjes in which she plays an English woman whose town is pillaged by Vikings. And in February 2008, she will finally begin filming Bright Star with director Jane Campion, in which she plays Fanny Brawne, another real life character, the lover of poet John Keats who died prematurely at age 25.

The diversity is dazzling and challenging; “I’m having so much fun,” she says.

Published November 15, 2007

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Abbie Cornish


Directed by Shekhar Kapur
Australian release: November 15, 2007
Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) is the target of Spanish King Philip’s (Jordi Molla) crusade to unite all of Europe under the Catholic Papacy – and in the process crown his little daughter the new Queen of England. As if that weren’t enough, another claimant to the throne, Mary Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton), plots Elizabeth’s overthrow from her castle prison. When Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) returns from his adventure in the New World, the Virgin Queen is fascinated by him, as is her lady in waiting, Bess (Abbie Cornish). Elizabeth’s trusted chief advisor, Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) continues to manipulate affairs of court, and intercepts Mary’s secret plans. Mary’s execution provides a trigger Philip of Spain has waited for to unleash his massive armada against Elizabeth’s England.

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