One of history's most brilliant monarchs -- and a leader who understood the importance of tapping into a nation's mythic imagination long before Ronald Reagan beguiled the American public with creaky old cowboy movie clichis -- Elizabeth I has had an uneven career as a screen character. In Hollywood's classic era, portrayed by Bette Davis, she was a high-strung, fretting version of the kind of career women played by Rosalind Russell or Joan Crawford, torn between her job and the "natural" longings of a woman's heart; this 1930s Elizabeth weeps all the way to the throne, so to speak. The memorable 1971 BBC miniseries "Elizabeth R" (starring Glenda Jackson) focused more on Elizabeth as political animal; the TV serial really is the best way to tell long, complicated, multi-character stories full of intrigue and skullduggery -- in other words, to depict the Tudor court. The movies prefer bold splashes of emotion and romance, and Elizabeth herself was a bit too hardheaded and ambitious for all that.
Nevertheless, Shekhar Kapur's "Elizabeth" offers an enjoyable new interpretation of this most enigmatic of rulers. She's still deeply conflicted about her destiny, but she's no longer modeled on Mildred Pierce. This time around, she's Michael Corleone.
Magnetically played by Cate Blanchett (spookily fair-skinned, ginger-haired and with a simmering intelligence that recalls Jackson's Elizabeth without seeming derivative), 1998's Elizabeth is a spirited, somewhat naive girl dragged into the viper's nest of the court and forced to fight for her throne and her life. To hang onto her head and consolidate her power she must navigate an environment as perilous as the underworld in Coppola's "The Godfather" -- the same treachery, the same butchery, the same tribal allegiances and caustic betrayals. Her predecessor and half-sister, "Bloody" Mary Tudor, has been scalping and burning Protestant "heretics" to defend the Catholic faith in England, and religious disputes have riven the nation and the aristocracy. The country is weak militarily and economically. Several different factions are scheming against her life, and black-cloaked assassins stalk the halls of her own palace. The Pope puts a price on her head. She loves the doe-eyed young Lord Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), but her advisors pressure her to marry a foreign potentate -- from France or Spain -- to stabilize England's position in Europe.
Some chest-thumping film critics like to sneer at the particular visual delights of costume pictures -- sumptuous outfits, pageantry, lush interiors -- as if these are less legitimate attractions than high-speed chases, explosions or semi-naked babes. So let me first note that I consider the above position to be fundamentally bogus before I go on to observe that "Elizabeth" smartly blends the dazzling beauties of Elizabeth's world with its brutalities. For every ravishing brocade gown there's a head on a spike, because, as is so often the case, the two are deeply linked: The power deployed to build castles and cover a queen in diamonds was maintained by an often lethal ruthlessness, a ruthlessness this monarch acquires as the film goes on. In a witty conceit worthy of a 16th century sonneteer (if more Jacobean than Elizabethan in tone), the queen narrowly evades the ultimate booby trap for a costume picture -- a poisoned dress.
In this version of her life, the young, impulsive Elizabeth learns to calculate, to conceal her vulnerabilities, to heed the advice of her Master of Spies, Sir Francis Walsingham (a pleasingly lurksome Geoffrey Rush), and to restrain her passion for Dudley. Despite this glum, repressive scenario, "Elizabeth" does, at least, offer a few glimpses of the queen's zest for her work. Blanchett is particularly riveting in the scene in which she appears before a counsel of bishops to argue for a crucial religious reform. After nervously preparing her speech and making a few stiff initial remarks, Elizabeth catches her stride. She reasons, she jokes, she charms, she importunes, and you can see her ignite as she watches the clerics, one by one, fall into the palm of her hand. She has discovered an appetite for the game that's at least as ravenous as her craving for Dudley.
Although the Byzantine political underpinnings of "Elizabeth" get a bit murky, the movie is a handsome, diverting coming-of-intrigue story studded with meaty performances. Does it matter, then, that it mangles history? Don't artists have license to manipulate facts to make the truth more dramatically compelling? They do, but in this case, the historical Elizabeth remains far more fascinating than her fictional incarnation. For example, the real Elizabeth, caught up in monarchal power struggles from her infancy, was never an innocent; and as a grown women she didn't stifle her capriciousness. Kapur's film depicts her as ultimately transforming herself into a living icon -- the Virgin Queen -- which she did do, but the triumphs of her 45-year reign owed as much to her canny and heartfelt appeals to British nationalism as they did to her ability to win English Catholics away from that other virgin. Kapur has Elizabeth deliver one of her most famous lines -- "I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king" -- crossly, in a stony chamber, to a handful of anxious counselors. In fact, she shouted this from horseback, wearing an silver breastplate, to her assembled troops at Tilbury -- just one example of her legendary oratorical panache. The real queen, in this case, shows a superior sense of theater.
Finally there's the matter of Elizabeth's "virginity" (which was probably more figurative than literal) and the film's interpretation of her choice not to marry as a sacrifice of her tender personal feelings to the rigors of ruling her country. Maybe. "Elizabeth" depicts the queen as frustrated in her wish to wed Dudley by his earlier marriage to a woman he kept hidden away in the countryside. In fact, Dudley's first wife died, and Elizabeth had ample opportunity to marry him. By remaining unwed, Elizabeth made herself a perpetual wild card in the arcane marital poker games of the European royalty, a status she shrewdly used to keep potential allies and enemies off balance. And while it's true that the queen expressed very little of her innermost thoughts (particularly about ticklish subjects like religion), she did once pronounce, "I would rather be a beggar and single than a queen and married" -- hardly an equivocal statement on the subject of matrimony.
In short, as appealing as Blanchett's romantic and feisty young princess may be, she's a shadow of the real thing, that complex, tough, baffling and formidably intelligent ruler (sometimes reputed to be a man in disguise) who presided over the age of Shakespeare. Like the playwright, Elizabeth, the apotheosis of a culture in many ways more cerebral and sophisticated than our own, may be a bit too much for us -- has there ever been a great movie about Shakespeare, after all? That needn't detract from the fun of watching "Elizabeth," with its double-crossing courtiers, fabulous clothes and radiant star, but it leaves this viewer, at least, hankering for something more.