Costume dramas, possibly owing to their cinematic origins as filmed theater, tend to be stuffy affairs marked by not-always-convincing European accents, period finery of the frilly and bulky variety, and as much tension as found in a television sitcom.
Elizabeth, thankfully, isn't a quaint story of kings and queens looking marvelous and acting royal. This tale of the 16th-century Virgin Queen -- with the alternately vulnerable and steely Cate Blanchett ("Oscar and Lucinda") in the title role and Indian filmmaker Shekhar Kapur ("Bandit Queen") at the helm -- focuses on political intrigue with an undercurrent of psychosexual drama.
Kapur declares his intentions from the start with a harrowing prelude. Three Protestants are tied to stakes and burned alive. The carnage has been ordered by Queen Mary I (Kathy Burke), whose pro-Catholic agenda led to the execution of nearly 300 people openly disloyal to Rome.
Mary's half-sister Elizabeth is arrested for treason and led away to the dark and foreboding Tower of London. Four years later, Mary dies of cancer, and Elizabeth is crowned queen during a beautifully photographed bout of pomp and circumstance reminiscent of those costume dramas of yore.
That's when the serious scheming begins, as friends and foes begin lining up for and against their new ruler. The Earl of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes), whom she's loved since both were teenagers, offers his unconditional support. Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough) pokes his nose in her personal business, with good intentions, and Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) skulks around the castle, dispensing golden nuggets of advice and showing his stripes as a true loyalist.
Other members of the court have less-than-patriotic intentions. The Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston) has an evil eye, a fierce demeanor and questionable allies. The Duc d'Anjou (Vincent Cassel) parties in drag and stays close to his aunt, the duplicitous Queen of Scotland (Fanny Ardant). The Pope (John Gielgud) directs forces of evil from across the Channel and gives his blessing to an assassination plot.
Kapur admirably juggles the action and keeps the luminescent Blanchett at the heart of an often complex narrative. He also makes a nod to another genre, referencing "The Godfather" during a bloody cleaning of the royal house near the film's finale. It's a handy metaphor for this film's postmodern, feminist annihilation of its predecessors in the genre.