It might be good to be the king, but it's not always good to be the queen.
Imagine being Queen Elizabeth I. You're young, beautiful, paler than pale, with long red tresses. Your half-sister, Mary, had been queen, but now she's dead, and you're on the throne.
But you're new at the job, and you don't know whom to trust. Your boyfriend, Lord Robert Dudley? That smoky-eyed Spanish ambassador? Sir Francis Walsingham, the mysterious figure who presents himself to you as your protector and adviser?
It's tough to tell who's friend and who's traitor. And when you figure out who's a traitor, will you have the guts to have him beheaded?
Finally, and worst of all, you're a woman, and you're supposed to get married. Everyone is urging you to. They're suggesting the French Duc d'Anjou. You're willing to give it a whirl, and at first you smile at the handsome Frenchman -- but then he bounds up to you and says, "I can't wait till we're both naked."
The first thing a moviegoer must do before seeing "Elizabeth" is take the traditional image of the Tudor queen -- stiff, with a gigantic ruff, the battle-ax face paint that resembled a Mardi Gras mask -- and toss it out the window.
It'll be back, dramatically, at the end of the movie, when the transition is like Superman emerging from the phone booth. But, for the time being (i.e., the next 2 1/2 hours) this is a young Elizabeth, a princess with long red hair, a snowy-white face and a serious crush on a married man. (There's no Essex in sight -- he comes along much later, when HRM was in her 50s.)
Elizabeth is played by Cate Blanchett, whose pale eyes and delicate coloring (even her eyebrows are red) makes her perfect for the part. In gowns of deep scarlet or royal blue, she loves to dance sexy dances, throwing coy glances over her shoulder at her partner. She rehearses her speeches at night, trying not to be nervous. Treating the court to a speech on common sense, she makes the lords and ladies giggle.
"Does not a queen sit under the same stars as any other woman?" she purrs to Robert Dudley one moonlit night as they recline in a barge on the Thames. Suffused in golden light, she positively glows.
"Elizabeth," besides being beautiful, is well-pedigreed. Richard Attenborough plays courtier Lord Cecil, and Joseph Fiennes, brother of Ralph, is the Queen's boyfriend, Lord Robert Dudley. John Gielgud shows up as the pope. Star billing goes to Geoffrey Rush, who has traded in the role of mild David Helfgott to become no-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy Lord Walsingham, Elizabeth's ruthless protector and adviser.
All of them are wonderful -- though it's tough topping the act of that naughty, horrifying Duc d'Anjou (Vincent Cassel).
Even the houses have impeccable bloodlines. Portraying the young Elizabeth's home, Hatfield Hall, is Haddan Hall, present home of the 10th Duke of Rutland. Alnwick Castle, the ancestral home of the Duke of Northumberland, shares the role. And the Queen is crowned in historic York Minster (which, press releases tell us, marks that church's movie debut).
There's humor, intrigue and a couple of impressive after-the-battle scenes. Of course, as in any historic drama, there's also gore. Hardly are we through the Prince Valiant-style opening titles (HENRY VIII IS DEAD. ENGLAND IS IN TURMOIL) than wham! we're right in the middle of a vivid public execution, with three Protestants being burned, gruesomely, at the stake, courtesy of Elizabeth's older half-sister, Queen Mary (Kathy Burke).
Tudor life must have been full of this stuff. In Masterpiece Theatre's "The Six Wives of Henry VIII," practically every 20 minutes someone was getting his (or her; it was equal-opportunity torture) eyes poked out or limbs racked. It appears to have been a political necessity; as Walsingham, the queen's right-hand man, says, any queen wants to hold onto her throne has to make occasional examples of people.
Time your popcorn trips judiciously, though, and "Elizabeth" is gorgeous: brimming with sunlight, gowns, castles and Renaissance music and dances. It portrays Elizabeth as we've rarely thought of her, as a young Queen full of big hopes and big insecurities. Who would ever have guessed that Elizabeth R. would ever have spent nights wandering around in her nightgown, talking to herself, figuring out how she's going to address the court. "Gentlemen, I . . . " she stammers, then shakes her head. "No. My lords. . . . No. . . . This is for the good of England. I have my subjects at heart. . . . No."
Camera angles and shadows emphasize her disorientation as she confronts her new quarters and responsibilities as queen of England. She's not above clutching the hand of a nearby lady in waiting. When she starts feeling more secure, we can sense that, too. Her trademark becomes the confident, humorous smile. But the smile can turn to a ruthless frown, especially as Elizabeth learns who her enemies are and how to deal with them.
Most of the enemies are Catholics, who are shown as being the creators of England's religious rift.
It does the movie dishonor that the script is needlessly, viciously anti-Catholic. Every single Catholic in the film is dark, cruel and devious. That goes for everyone, from the pope on down. The Anglicans, on the other hand, are rational and humorous, glowing with faith and common sense. "I will follow my conscience," Elizabeth says, urging people to see the sense of a book of Common Prayer.
Of course, nothing is said about the courage and dignity of the Catholic martyrs, most notably St. Thomas More. The movie gets out of that with the simple phrase "HENRY VIII IS DEAD." It's also interesting that the Elizabethan music on the soundtrack is by Thomas Tallis, who, brand-new research suggests, was a closet Catholic.
The movie's a little plodding at times, but no more so than any other historic drama. The only criticism I had of the plot structure was that the ending arrived suddenly, with Elizabeth's sudden switch to the ruff and white makeup. The transformation happens literally overnight. (The gowns, though, have been evolving gradually; as the costume designer points out in the press kit, "the neckline starts low and gradually closes up and up, working toward that final icon look.")
Here's how it happens: To the mighty, albeit anachronistic, strains of Mozart's Requiem, ladies-in-waiting shear Elizabeth's head, prepare the face paint. Next morning, it's like Charlton Heston in "The Ten Commandments" ascending the mountain and coming down with a new blow-dried hairstyle. The court is shocked by the queen's new look. The nobles are reverent, blinded.
Why does she do it? The movie suggests the theory that by styling herself as the Virgin Queen, "married to England," she hoped to claim a little of the devotion reserved, even in newly Anglican England, for the Virgin Mary.
Does she achieve that goal? It's suggested, with more Prince Valiant-style titles, that she does.
Next year, could it be sequel time?
Rating: *** 1/2
Historical drama about young Queen Elizabeth I and her rise to power. Starring Cate Blanchett, Joseph Fiennes and Richard Attenborough. Directed by Shekhar Kapur. Rated R for extreme violence and some sex. Opens today in area movie theaters.