Despite flashing eyes and sumptuous court finery, this intelligent period drama skilfully avoids the swamp of nostalgic fantasy. Director Kapur draws the best from an outstanding cast and delivers both an atmospheric romance and a mature exploration of a big theme - the dark duplicity, betrayal, and grubby ambition that runs through Britain's bloodthirsty history.
Essentially the story of Elizabeth's transformation from sensual young hothead to hard-hearted queen, evolving sub-plots also explore issues of femininity, power, and high politics. The film begins with the brutalised and cynical 'Bloody Mary' (Burke) persecuting Protestants, whilst her half-sister Elizabeth (Blanchett) is a happy-go-lucky young woman enjoying the first flushes of love with The Earl of Leicester (Fiennes).
Fearing Elizabeth's Protestant leanings, Mary imprisons her and plots to have her killed. On her deathbed, Mary has a change of heart and Elizabeth ascends to the throne. Thrust into an edgy world of political and religious flux she struggles to protect her power, life, and independence as the court boils with intrigue and conspiracy.
Kapur is a bold director with a taste for the big story, and in the name of narrative energy he does take substantial liberties with history. He compresses events from Elizabeth's whole reign into the first five years, and makes up others altogether. Just take it for what it is: a gorgeously mounted film with a strong cast, tremendous pace, and the power to charge the viewer through the dark corridors of labyrinthine palaces or across the green fields of England.