History takes a backseat to costume history, which takes a backseat to "The Young and the Restless," in Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth, starring Cate Blanchett as 16th-century England's beloved Virgin Queen. Or should I say "Like a Virgin" Queen? Among the many vexing questions Elizabeth answers (to its own satisfaction, anyway) is the one about Her Royal Highness' hymen. Did it remain intact throughout Elizabeth's illustrious reign, or was virginity a Machiavellian pose she struck, a pose held so long that it was finally indistinguishable from the truth? The Elizabeth in Elizabeth, having tasted the fruits of romantic love, becomes what a friend of mine used to call "a born-again virgin." Surrounded by suitors, assassins and other strangers, she does what any enterprising career girl would do: She marries England. Kapur, who's Indian, reportedly knew next to nothing about Elizabeth before he started working on the movie. That turns out to be both a bad thing and a good thing--bad because he and scriptwriter Michael Hirst can't seem to keep the plot or the plots (against Elizabeth) straight, good because he's not overawed by his subject. Elizabeth is, first and foremost, a romp--a historical melodrama that's both rousing and arousing. Less Elizabethan than Jacobean, it also contains quite a bit of blood, not to mention heads on spikes. Of course, how could it not, what with Catholics and Protestants going after one another and Mary, Queen of Scots stirring up trouble? This was a period in English history when, one moment, you were locked in the Tower of London, about to have your head chopped off; the next moment you were the Queen of England.
Blanchett handles both moments extremely well. The movie covers only the brief time before and after Elizabeth ascended to the throne, and Blanchett, who has the bleached beauty of Tilda Swinton, is like a cub who transforms into a lion, complete with a long, tawny mane. Considering that she's playing a woman who succeeded in turning England from an island kingdom into a world power, Blanchett hasn't been given very much to do. But, like Elizabeth, she makes the most of what she's got, finally providing us with a history lesson in female empowerment. That Elizabeth had to surrender her love life in order to defeat her many enemies is still being debated by historians but is accepted as the gospel truth by the filmmakers. Apparently, the woman for whom an entire age was named had more important things to do on Saturday night.