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[whitespace] Elizabeth
Queen for an Age: Cate Blanchett lives a life out of a Pre-Raphaelite fantasy in the early parts of the new film 'Elizabeth.'

A biography of the young Elizabeth I trades motion for spectacle

By Richard von Busack

A CERTAIN BLOODY-MINDEDNESS helps in telling a story of barbarous English history. Director Shekhar Kapur (Bandit Queen) delivers a very sick joke in the early scenes of Elizabeth. The bald heads of three Protestant martyrs are seen from above the pile of sticks laid for their pyre. Tied to the stake, their heads form a Tudor rose, the emblem of Queen Bloody Mary. Kapur rotates the camera to make sure we see the pattern.

The time is 1554, and the burned heretics are the victim of the queen, here a crowned toad purging her realm of non-Catholics. Among those whose lives are in Mary's hands is her sister, Princess Elizabeth. Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) lives a life out of a Pre-Raphaelite fantasy. The willowy, pale, red-headed young girl will grow into an oak, as magnificent as the one she stands under here when she receives news of her ascent to the throne. If I'm gushing, it's because it's been nearly 30 years since Glenda Jackson made her name by portraying the queen. Elizabeth is a fine, complex role for women starved for good parts, and her early career, portrayed here, is a study for the balancing act she kept up for the rest of her life. Elizabeth revels in the gorgeous Renaissance trappings of the English court, yet the camera never slows down to gape; you have to keep watching to pay attention to the treachery around her.

"Nothing had been left undone to provide the queen with problems," historians Will and Ariel Durant once wrote. Elizabeth inherits a bankrupt, weak England surrounded by foreign intriguers bent on forcing her into strategic marriage. In Scotland is her French enemy, Mary of Guise (Fanny Ardant, of Ridicule, delicious in a too-small role). At Elizabeth's court, the Spanish are seeking to increase the hold they have on England. Elizabeth's protectors against this scheming are Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough), an old man urging her to marry quickly, and Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush in an appropriately sinister portrait of a pioneer of the police state).

Elizabeth is not a historically accurate film. She was, by official account, not an agitated girl but an assured speaker who knew several languages. Here, she rejects Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), later named the Earl of Leicester, for his being married. In real life, she knew of this fact and was even suspected of being an interested party when Dudley's estranged wife took a fatal header down a flight of stairs. And of course no one knows whether she lost her virginity to Dudley as seen in the film--or whether, as Ben Jonson gossiped, she had a superunbreakable hymen. History--what crimes are committed against you in the name of moviemaking. But Blanchett's delicate, dryly humorous performance is captivating and even regal; so is Kapur's inspired thieving from The Godfather to frame a story of the malignant weight of capital power.

Elizabeth (R; 124 min.), directed by Shekhar Kapur, written by Michael Hirst, photographed by Remi Adefarsain and starring Cate Blanchett and Joseph Fiennes.

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From the November 25-December 2, 1998 issue of Metro.

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