Australian actress Cate Blanchett makes a fine Queen Elizabeth in Elizabeth, a costume drama covering the early years of her reign. The film itself isn't so successful. Anyone with less than a working knowledge of 16th-century English history is likely to be lost without a scorecard, and while it's easy to blame viewers for that, it's just as much the fault of the film, which has a tendency to introduce characters and intrigues with little explanation, jumping from one to another seemingly at random. The Pope (John Gielgud) signs Blanchett's death warrant in one scene; a French suitor (Vincent Cassel) is seen prancing around in a dress in another, with little more than a series of knowing looks providing transitions. At the core of all the Machiavellian subplots is Blanchett, who does an admirable job portraying Elizabeth's growth into her role as a monarch, hardening her heart as she becomes a masterful politician and abandons most of her humanity to serve her country. It's this development and its surprisingly affecting conclusion, along with the sumptuous production design and memorable supporting performances (including those of Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston, and Joseph Fiennes), that almost make Elizabeth worth watching. But much of it, like its subject, is so cryptic, distractingly stylish, and impenetrably posed that it's rough going most of the way.

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