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Elizabeth

Published: Thursday, Nov. 26 1998 12:01 a.m. MST

This life story of England's legendary 16th century "Virgin Queen," Elizabeth I, would make a fascinating movie. Unfortunately, the new film "Elizabeth" is about other things entirely.

Despite an Oscar-worthy performance by Cate Blanchett ("Oscar and Lucinda") as the title character, this historical drama is more concerned with showing tawdry sex, convoluted conspiracies and surprisingly violent killings than it is with telling the real story.

And director Shekhar Kapur (the 1994 Hindi-language film "Bandit Queen") puts such an emphasis on visually arresting storytelling techniques that it brings to mind the 1996 MTV-style retelling of "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet." (Perhaps it should have been called "William Shakespeare's Elizabeth.")

This is particularly disappointing since Kapur is working with a fascinating subject and a terrific cast — including Geoffrey Rush, Richard Attenborough and John Gielgud and a pair of acclaimed French actors, Fanny Ardant and Vincent Cassel. But he squanders his cast and can't put the story elements together in a coherent fashion.

The film begins with Elizabeth's succession to the throne. Though she was once an exile, she comes to power upon the death of her half-sister, the tyrannical Queen Mary I (Kathy Burke, from "Nil By Mouth").

While Elizabeth is busy celebrating the good news with her sweetheart, Lord Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), her advisers begin pressuring her to marry a political ally to strengthen her financially poor and militarily weak empire.

That point is driven home when France's "warrior queen," Mary of Guise (Ardant), mobilizes troops along the Scottish border. The underequipped English forces suffer humiliating losses during the resulting skirmish.

If that's not bad enough, Elizabeth also has to fight off challenges from inside her court, including one by the fanatical Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston), an overzealous Catholic who is upset at the thought of a Protestant queen.

But in her darkest hour, she gets some unexpected help from Sir Francis Walsingham (Rush), a shady character who teaches the young ruler to fight back and to trust no one.

One of the film's major problems is a too-ambitious screenplay by Michael Hirst ("The Ballad of the Sad Cafe"), which spins so many story threads that it can't tie them up satisfactorily. Also, numerous political schemes go unexplained and character motivations are unclear, which makes it hard to care about what's happening on-screen.

And there is a ludicrous concentration on sex (including a bit about the queen's cross-dressing suitor), which seems odd, considering that this is a period drama.

Still, both the costuming and set design are fabulous, as is Blanchett's transformation from unsure youngster to self-assured monarch. Too bad the rest of the cast has so little to do, undoubtedly because there are so many characters it's impossible to flesh them all out.

Worse, Rush and Attenborough are surprisingly one-note as the queen's advisers, and Fiennes (the younger brother of Ralph Fiennes) is too smarmy to be interesting — or to be a believable paramour.

"Elizabeth" is rated R for impalings and other violent killings, gore, sex, female nudity, use of vulgar slang, a brief torture scene and scattered profanities.

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