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Reviewed by Jill Cozzi

(India/UK 1998) Rated R

Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Fiennes, Kathy Burke, Richard Attenborough

Directed by Shekhar Kapur Writing credits: Michael Hirst

Polygram * 124 minutes

No matter how many times the story of Elizabeth I is told, it remains a ripping yarn with all the elements of good storytelling - sex, death, and fancy costumes, with treachery, politics, and arguably, feminism, thrown in for added spice. Shekhar Kapur's ELIZABETH is a lush, gorgeous, riveting treatment of the story of Elizabeth's young years, her ascent to the throne, and her emergence as the "Virgin Queen" of legend.

The film begins with a scene that is sure to bother Catholics as their church prepares to re-evaluate the Inquisition - the burning at the stake of Protestant heretics. The theological fallout of Elizabeth's father Henry VIII's marital problems is made absolutely clear. Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth has the same white skin and orangey hair sported by Glenda Jackson in her superb PBS interpretation of almost twenty years ago, but Blanchett plays a far more vulnerable young Elizabeth who grows into her strength before our eyes. A wonderful scene shows short cuts of Elizabeth rehearsing a speech before the bishops, fraught with self-doubt and uncertainty, followed by the actual speech, in which she is strong, convincing, and witty.

Director Shakur has painted a Tudor England where even the Queen lives in a place that's cavernous and dark, and for once, shows that it doesn't matter how fabulous the clothes were; you wouldn't have wanted to live then. He has built a terrific international cast. Christopher Eccleston is a ruthless, scheming Duke of Norfolk, John Gielgud makes a welcome appearance as the Pope, Geoffrey Rush is a creepy (and possibly pedophilic) Sir Francis Walsingham, and Vincent Cassell is a Gallic Howie Mandel as the Duc d'Anjou, a foppish French suitor of indeterminate sexual orientation. Richard Attenborough as Sir William Cecil fares less well, as he bears far too strong a resemblance to Mickey Rooney in this role.

ELIZABETH is a breakthrough for Cate Blanchett, who was so promising in last year's OSCAR AND LUCINDA, opposite Ralph Fiennes. She is riveting in every scene, and truly heartbreaking as her Elizabeth realizes that to survive, she must relinquish all matters of the heart. Joseph Fiennes (Ralph's kid brother) practically leaves charred burn holes in the screen as he smolders his way through the film as Elizabeth's lover, Robert Dudley. Fiennes the Younger is being touted as The Next Hot Sex Symbol, and this would be an auspicious debut if he didn't look so much like Dennis Miller in a poet shirt.

The treacheries and intrigues of Elizabeth's ascent are far more than a two-hour film can adequately handle. Much of the Catholic/Protestant conflicts are not clear, and viewers not already familiar with the story may be confused, and may want to read further. However, this lusty, energetic, richly photographed rendition is well worth that effort.

- Jill Cozzi

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