Duff provides a worthy portrait of Elizabeth I


The advance DVD of The Virgin Queen, a handsome Masterpiece Theatre life of Elizabeth I, bears the tagline "She led by leading men on ..."

Give Bess some credit. There was a little more to it than that.

Still, one can't fault the Masterpiece Theatre folks for hyping the sexy side of the Virgin Queen, which airs at 9 tonight and Nov. 20 on PBS. The TV landscape is competitive, especially on Sundays; not only that, each new telling of Elizabeth's tale must stand out from the pack of previous depictions of the legendary queen's royal career.

After all, Glenda Jackson made her career with a scintillating portrayal as the first Queen Elizabeth in a landmark 1972 BBC production, Elizabeth R, and Cate Blanchett made the role her own with her sinewy, brilliant performance in the 1998 film Elizabeth.

As portrayed by newcomer Anne-Marie Duff, this Elizabeth is a headstrong, willful teenager, mindful of her royal birth and the danger that she's in, until her cranky sister, Queen Mary, passes away and Elizabeth ascends the throne.

Duff gives Elizabeth, immortalized in countless paintings as a stiff, regal figure, an appealing sensuality and subtle cunning.

Is the queen's romance with the married courtier Robert Dudley a diversionary ploy to keep possible suitors off-balance, or is it a real attraction? Duff makes you believe the latter, until, well into the program, you realize the queen's flirtation with Dudley may have been both.

And that was Elizabeth's genius, which this well-written production more than adequately depicts: Elizabeth's ability to take what was seen as a weakness - being a woman - and use it to her ultimate advantage.

In the second hour of tonight's two-hour broadcast, Elizabeth is forcefully pressed by her advisers to find a husband. "You cannot rule alone, can you?" one councilor snorts, scorning the absurdity of the idea. But by keeping everyone guessing, Elizabeth cannily kept a firm reign on power.

Standouts among the cast include Kevin McKidd, the principled Lucius Vorenus on HBO's Rome; here he plays the swaggering Duke of Norfolk, who's no fan of "this wretched petticoat government," as he calls it.

But the show belongs to Duff. She may not make anyone entirely forget Glenda Jackson's galvanizing Elizabeth, but the young actress brings a girlish energy to the queen's early life, and, as the Virgin Queen matures, Duff offers a clever depiction of how this savvy monarch survived the shark-infested waters of the English court.

Maureen Ryan writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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