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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 11/19/1998, B: Alicia Potter,

Queen size

Elizabeth crowns Cate Blanchett a star

by Alicia Potter

ELIZABETH, Directed by Shekhar Kapur. Written by Michael Hirst. With Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Fiennes, and Richard Attenborough. A Gramercy Pictures release.

"Your undoubted queen!" proclaims a magistrate as he sets a gleaming crown on Cate Blanchett's apricot-colored head. From that moment on, there isn't any question that Blanchett, with her noble cheekbones and imperious gaze, rules as the legendary 16th-century British monarch in Shekhar Kapur's resplendent Elizabeth.

It's a star-making performance that's likely to put the Australian-born actress, last seen in 1997's Oscar and Lucinda, in the Academy Award square-off. It also places her in some formidable company, namely that of Dame Flora Robson, Bette Davis, and Glenda Jackson, all of whom put their best farthingales forward as the tormented yet kittenish queen. But unlike Davis, who affected a risible, load-in-her-pantalettes walk for 1955's The Virgin Queen, Blanchett never curtsies to caricature. Her interpretation is complex, restrained, warmly sensual. And though the film is decidedly erotic for a biography of a Virgin Queen -- many historians insist she lived up to the moniker -- this Elizabeth gets turned on not just by her paramour but by her power, too.

Not like a virgin

NEW YORK -- "It's the revenge of the colonials," laughs Shekhar Kapur, director of Elizabeth, the new film biography of Britain's Elizabeth I, the monarch whose reign marked the rise of Imperial England. Here, Elizabeth and her trusted adviser Sir Francis Walsingham are played by Cate Blanchett (Oscar and Lucinda) and Geoffrey Rush (Shine), two natives of Britain's former penal colony, Australia. Kapur himself is from India, and this is his first English-language film.

"I am the last person in the world who should be directing Elizabeth," marvels the Bollywood filmmaker, who was approached by Elizabeth producer Tim Bevan. "To ask an Indian who knows nothing about British history to make a film about a British icon. It was such a mad thing, I just had to do it."

Kapur, who's best known in the West for his controversial 1994 film The Bandit Queen (another tale of a real-life, fiercely independent woman warrior, the Indian outlaw folk heroine Phoolan Devi), is no stranger to impulsive decisions. He says, "I cast Cate Blanchett after seeing the preview for Oscar and Lucinda." Not the whole film, just the trailer.

Similarly, he knew he wanted Rush, and though the actor had already declined because he didn't want to do another period piece, Kapur flew to the set of Les Misérables to persuade him otherwise. Meeting the Bandit Queen director, Rush says he thought that "Shekhar, being from Bombay, probably lived in an environment much closer to the vitality of life in Elizabethan England. More spiritual, more passionate, more fervent about his beliefs. And I thought, `Well, this is going to be really interesting.' "

If the producers expected an irreverent approach to a historical film from their unorthodox director and cast, they got their wish. "I never wanted to do a traditional English period film," says Kapur. "I've turned the period film on its head. I've made a contemporary film out of a 16th-century life. It's a story about love and survival."

Part of that irreverence meant an Oliver Stone-like stance toward the facts. "We've played fast and loose with history," acknowledges Christopher Eccleston (Jude, Shallow Grave), who plays Elizabeth's chief adversary, the Duke of Norfolk. "Things have been condensed. Characters have been condensed. Events have been shuffled around."

"It is not at all historically accurate," says Blanchett, unapologetically. "We wanted to explore much more personal things than the historical facts of her life. We're exploring the boundaries between love and duty, as this young girl, who ascends the throne at 25, stabilizes the country. It's terrifying what she had to wrench out of her heart in order to take on public responsibility."

Among those personal things is Elizabeth's relationship with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes), a relationship that the film posits was sexual. That interpretation has already angered British historians devoted to the image Elizabeth created for herself as the "Virgin Queen." (Elizabeth never married or had children, but some believe she had an affair decades later with Dudley's stepson Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex.) "How do they know she didn't [have an affair with Dudley]?" insists Kapur. He calls the "Virgin Queen" image a monumental "case of spin control."

Some of that spin meant demonizing her enemies, such as Norfolk, who may have believed he was saving the soul of Catholic England by plotting against the Protestant queen. Notes Eccleston, "History is written by the winners, and anything I was going to read about Norfolk was going to be written by Elizabeth's historians. I tried to reverse that, slightly. On my first reading of the script, I felt he was a pantomime villain, and I spoke at length with Shekhar about giving him some humanity. The more multifaceted the people Elizabeth is waging war against, the greater her achievement. I tried to give him some principles and convictions. He actually believes what he's doing is right. A man as powerful as that needed to have some political acumen and some feeling for his country."

Still, Eccleston's Norfolk winds up on the chopping block. "I have the plastic head," enthuses Eccleston. "It's hidden away in a cupboard. Nobody's come near my house since I got it. My dad dragged it out once and put a cap on it and a scarf around it."

-- Gary Susman

The film opens in 1554, several years before Elizabeth's accession (she ruled from 1558 to 1603), to stoke the violent drama of her early reign. Recalling the unmerciful brutality of Kapur's 1994 Bandit Queen, Elizabeth at once tests stomachs with the spectacle of three screaming Protestants being burned at the stake. Such is the scourge of Catholic Queen Mary (Kathy Burke), Elizabeth's dithering shrew of a half-sister, who orders the execution of hundreds of "heretics," including Protestant Elizabeth. But soon the tumor-addled Mary dies, and 25-year-old Elizabeth is coronated amid much pomp. She quickly learns that being queen isn't all velvet and volta dances: France, Scotland, and Spain threaten England. And within her courts, a papal plot to overthrow her cooks.

Kapur interprets these themes of illusion, imprisonment, and subterfuge in rich, rhapsodic imagery. Curtains -- yards and yards of 'em -- emerge as the dominant leitmotif: airy drapes obscure Elizabeth's boudoir romps with dapper Lord Dudley (Joseph Fiennes, Ralph's brother); shifty characters skulk into rooms from behind heavy tapestries; and when an attempt is made on the monarch's life, she's pinned beneath a sheath of netting. Likewise, the Indian director contrasts the verdant, diorama-like settings of Elizabeth's youth with the Stygian dankness of the palace, where, often, Blanchett's luminosity seems to be the only light.

Although evocative, Kapur's touch isn't exactly gentle. He cudgels home the impact of Catholic zealotry with plenty of God-is-watching aerial shots, and in one particularly overwrought instance he casts Elizabeth in a cross-shaped spotlight as Queen Mary considers offing her head. Kapur also continues to ply a predilection for artful grotesquerie: limbless corpses litter a battlefield, and at one point a bishop flagellates himself, his shirt a rag of bloody tatters.

Such slickness elevates style over sentiment, further softening the emotional subtlety of Michael Hirst's script. Among the members of Elizabeth's court, who include Richard Attenborough as chief adviser Sir William Cecil and Christopher Eccleston (Jude) as the hawkish Duke of Norfolk, only Geoffrey Rush (Shine) as Lord Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's Machiavellian master of spies, seethes with can't-look-away intensity. Similarly, the plot against the queen -- a conflation of several real-life events -- is convoluted, and its machinators blur into a pantalooned posse of run-of-the-mill bad guys.

Blanchett's performance, too, isn't so much moving as intriguing. Kapur keeps this tale from turning into a dusty old history lesson by taking a cue from England's current rulers -- the Spice Girls. The film wields a feisty, wholly anachronistic girl-power edge. In fact, this Elizabeth is just your average working gal, Ally McBeal in brocade instead of Banana Republic. Everyone wants to marry her off, she's anxious about her job (in one of the film's few humorous moments, she practices a speech to the Catholic bishops), and she's learning that her boyfriend just may be a cad. She even roars, "I am not afraid of anything!" and "I am no man's Elizabeth!"

You goeth, girl. In the end, Kapur's crown jewel is a tale of twin transformations, that of Elizabeth into one of history's most enigmatic and powerful women, and that of Blanchett into, well, a bona fide screen queen.