It takes orbs of brass to walk where Sarah Bernhardt, Bette Davis, Judith Anderson, and Glenda Jackson have ruled before. Yet here’s blissfully unactressy Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth, embracing the role of England’s legendary 16th-century Virgin Queen with luminous, spirited, Oscar-watch style. Indian director Shekhar Kapur’s retelling of the crowning of 25-year-old Queen Bess, who survived conspiracies and assassination attempts — and, in the bargain, had to forfeit her womanly desires for love and sex — tags all the period-piece bases. But there’s more hot blood running through the veins of this opulent production than its A&E-style subject matter might suggest. This is a sensual, psychologically modern costume drama influenced by both The Godfather and gals’ guides to empowerment; beneath the finery of these schemers beat hearts as up-to-date as any on a TV drama, assuming a TV story line allows for beheadings.
Elizabeth covers just a small part at the beginning of the monarch’s 44-year reign, but it’s the juicy part, when she was a smart but untried thing, madly in love with Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes, puppyish enough for Dawson’s Creek), and didn’t care who knew it. Her advisers, meanwhile, led by the traitorous duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston, malevolent enough for Buffy the Vampire Slayer), plotted to topple her, while her own shady top spy, Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush, mysterious enough for The X-Files), worked overtime to thwart her foes.
The Australian-born Blanchett, whose starring role in Oscar and Lucinda has nevertheless kept her relatively unknown here, is the queen of this tony entertainment, pure and simple; without her, Kapur’s extravagant history lesson (written by Michael Hirst) blurs into dark doings among men in tights. But when Blanchett announces her feminist declaration, ”I am no man’s Elizabeth,” we’re thrilled because she makes us know that she most definitely is not. B+