'Elizabeth' plays like 'Masterpiece Theatre' lite

November 20, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Lutes and flutes. Ladies fair gamboling in fields. Men in puffy shirts.

Such is the Gloriana depicted in "Elizabeth," Shekhar Kapur's vapid re-telling of the story of Elizabeth I's ascension to the English throne.

Little more than a series of delicious-looking tableaux, "Elizabeth" leaves film-goers with the impression that the time period represented -- the years immediately after Elizabeth assumed the throne in 1558, when the 25-year-old queen foiled foreign armies, envious relatives and palace intrigue to secure her rule -- must have been a fascinating chapter in history. It will also leave them with the impression that for a story that does full justice to this extraordinary woman, they'd best go elsewhere.

"Elizabeth" opens in the waning days of the rule of Queen Mary I, whose rule has been characterized by her vicious persecution of Protestants. On the brink of death, Mary (Kathy Burke) tries to have her half-sister and heir to the throne, Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett), assassinated, but to no avail. When Mary dies, Elizabeth is retrieved from her life in exile and comes to London to assume the throne.

Once there, Elizabeth discovers the myriad forces that are marshaled against her: England, without money or a standing army, is under serious threat, and the loyalty of the Queen's chief adviser, Sir William of Cecil (Christopher Eccleston), is questionable. What's more, Elizabeth must renounce her love for Lord Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) and consider the proposals of the foppish Duc d'Anjou (Vincent Cassel) and King Philip II of Spain.

Watching "Elizabeth," which combines the design and costumes the toniest Merchant-Ivory production with the quick editing and roaming camera of a trendy television show, at least accomplishes one thing: It makes the film-goer respect even vTC more the work of William Shakespeare, whose plays about the English royalty interwove history, politics, psychological motivations and cultural context with such meaning. Compared with those works, Kapur's film looks like little more than a well-upholstered pop-up book.

Although Blanchett is captivating as a woman coming to terms )) with her own power, the movie she's in ill serves the complexities of Elizabeth's personality, her prodigious intelligence or the details of her reign. Instead, "Elizabeth" trots out a tired love story ("Robert, you know you're everything to me") and a wicked queen (Mary of Guise, played by a gray-streaked Fanny Ardant) straight out of Cinderella. Geoffrey Rush ("Shine") is wasted as Elizabeth's Master of Spies, who must have been a terribly interesting fellow.

Part Renaissance Fair re-enactment, part Encyclopedia Brittanica illustration, "Elizabeth" is history for people who are overtaxed by "Masterpiece Theater." It's the best argument against good taste, which is given a full workout here to utterly useless effect.

'Elizabeth'

Starring Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Fiennes, Richard Attenborough

Directed by Shekhar Kapur

Released by Gramercy Pictures

Rated R (violence and sexuality)

Running time: 121 minutes

Sun score: *

Pub Date: 11/20/98

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