Helen Mirren reigns supreme as Britain's Elizabeth I

Critics' picks: New DVDs

August 20, 2006

ELIZABETH I -- HBO / $29.98

This dazzling four-hour film starring Helen Mirren as the 16th-century ruler who reunited England and became one of the nation's most beloved leaders earned 13 Emmy nominations -- more than either Fox's 24 or ABC's Grey's Anatomy.

And they were richly deserved, particularly the one for Mirren as best actress in a miniseries. Her range is astounding.

At one end of the tour de force performance, she's playfully rolling her eyes as ancient, grim-faced, male advisers urge her to heed the ticking of her biological clock and get about the business of producing an heir. At the other, she descends into a bottomless pit of anguish after bringing about the death of her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. One can almost feel the madness of grief seizing her soul.

The supporting cast is a dream, most notably Jeremy Irons as the Earl of Leicester, the one man with whom she can find any joy -- but cannot marry. Irons earned an Emmy nomination as best supporting actor.

Director Tom Hooper and screenwriter Nigel Williams were also nominated for their work, suggesting a film that has it all: inspired acting, writing and directing.

Special features

The DVD includes an informative backstage look at the making of this splendid production, as well as a feature on the real Elizabeth I.

Scheduled for release Tuesday.

David Zurawik



DOUBLE INDEMNITY: SPECIAL EDITION --Universal Home Video / $26.95

Billy Wilder's pioneering film noir, Double Indemnity, is one of the great American films, and one of the most influential.

When it was released in 1944, audiences were still trying to jibe the spiritual realities of World War II, the feelings of depravation and decay and malaise, with the sunny product Hollywood continued to spew out. Double Indemnity forced the cinema into new directions. Here was a film in which the hero (Fred MacMurray as easily manipulated insurance salesman Walter Neff) was a murderer, the heroine (Barbara Stanwyck's extremely fatal femme, Phyllis Dietrichson) was overtly sexy, the atmosphere was dark, the mood darker and nothing turned out right in the end.

Released as part of the Universal Legacy Series, Double Indemnity is proof of black-and-white film's unrivalled effectiveness in establishing mood. There's also a 37-minute documentary in which film historians explain just what film noir is, and why Double Indemnity is such a perfect example of the form. A second disc includes a 1973 TV remake of the film, starring Richard Crenna, Samantha Eggar and Lee J. Cobb.

Chris Kaltenbach


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