How the Virgin Queen, from the stone castle's point of view, turned herself immortal.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published January 24, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Directed by Shekhar Kapur
Starring Cate Blanchett, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Richard Attenborough, Fanny Ardant
PolyGram; widescreen anamorphic (1.66:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Director's commentary, two making-of documentaries, more

It helps to bone up on your English history before diving into this dizzying, sometimes overwrought tale of how a passionate but unworldly girl was transformed into the icy Virgin Queen, perhaps the most famous and powerful woman the Western world has ever seen. But even if you have no idea who the Duke of Norfolk was or why the Catholic bishops were eager to engineer the destruction of their youthful queen, you'll be wowed by Cate Blanchett's striking performance as an overtly sexual young Elizabeth and by the originality of director Shekhar Kapur's vision. Maybe Kapur indulges himself a bit too much in those whirling traveling shots and odd overhead angles, but this spellbinding film as a whole is worth the struggle.

Yeah, there are other, more famous films about the Elizabethan era; in fact, it's a little distracting to see Joseph Fiennes here, playing Elizabeth's lover Lord Robert Dudley rather than the young Shakespeare. But "Elizabeth" does more than most to create a sense of visceral menace, to establish that 16th-century England was dominated more by murderous intrigue, greed and lechery than by love sonnets and sunshine. Even beyond the feral, troubling beauty of Blanchett (who was a virtual unknown before this role), Kapur's casting is alive with imagination, and does much to defeat any potential Merchant-Ivory-style stuffiness. Geoffrey Rush is fearsome as Walsingham, Elizabeth's notorious spymaster and inquisitor, while Christopher Eccleston, usually seen in cockney roughneck parts, is scheming nobleman Norfolk. Fanny Ardant, still sultry at 50, plays French temptress Mary of Guise, while soccer superstar Eric Cantona appears as the French ambassador and John Gielgud (in his next-to-last feature film) is a distinctly non-Italian pope.

The two making-of featurettes on this disc are nothing special (although it's amusing to see Blanchett, in full Elizabeth get-up, speak in an Aussie accent), but Kapur, an Indian director best known for his Hindi-language "Bandit Queen," makes a dryly intelligent and even self-critical host on his commentary track. He was as surprised as anyone, he admits, to find himself directing a film about the quintessential English queen, but the very strangeness of the material apparently yielded benefits. When he first came to England, he relates, he was struck by the immensity of stone, by the medieval palaces, towers and cathedrals in which the drama of Elizabethan power played out. So those disorienting overhead shots are literally from the buildings' points of view, the points of view of immortality and history, and the story they tell is that of a woman who turned herself to stone and became immortal.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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