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Truly ruling with an iron fist

'Warrior Queen' is an impressively epic-scale 'Masterpiece Theatre,' but don't look too closely at the 'British' scenery.

October 10, 2003|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

From its opening moments -- as Alex Kingston, biceps flexing impressively, hair whipping in the wind, comes charging in on her chariot -- you know exactly what kind of ride "Warrior Queen" is going to be. Kingston, who plays Dr. Elizabeth Corday on "ER," here impersonates Boudica, a British national heroine who harried the land's Roman occupiers around AD 60.

As imagined by director Bill Anderson and screenwriter Andrew Davies (whose BBC adaptation of "Moll Flanders" also featured Kingston), her life and times make for an entertaining 90 minutes of violent nonsense and proto-patriotic chest-thumping.

There are a few stabs at contemporary relevance as well and hints of complexity in characters presented only briefly (to leave more screen time for fighting). And there is a bit of magic realism, the better to capture the Druidic worldview. But it is pretty much your standard Free-Spirited Barbarian versus Decadent Imperialist scenario, with some excruciating Celtic keening on the soundtrack to remind us exactly where we are.

These early Britons are a lusty breed, forever brandishing swords and severed heads -- surely "Warrior Queen" (Sunday at 9 p.m. on PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre") sets some sort of severed-head record. They paint their faces and mousse their hair and in general present an aspect of having arrived from beyond Thunderdome. They fight, they love, and they love to fight. And though nothing impels them into the sack like burning a Roman encampment, they are surprisingly gentle lovers.

Indeed, they are overall a sensitive people: As we meet him, Boudica's husband, King Prasutagus (Steven Waddington), is in fact suffering an existential crisis: He no longer has the heart to be a Barbarian. Prasutagus opts instead for the Pax Romana, the benefits of which are explained to him in amusingly contemporary terms by Roman officials shaped into the likeness of corporate blowhards.

"You know as well as I do," says one, "our management charges are very conservative when you take the benefits into consideration." The word "terrorism" is also bandied here, and we are clearly meant to see parallels to the contemporary Middle East -- with the Celts more or less standing in for the Palestinians -- and purposeful echoes of American imperialism, though ultimately this amounts to little more than garnish. It is not quite a considered attack.

It all goes bad soon enough. After Prasutagus dies, poisoned perhaps by his own priest (a hammy Gary Lewis), his property is seized by Rome, Boudica flogged and her daughters raped by official decree. Therefore the offended queen rallies the free peoples of Middle Earth -- excuse me, of East Anglia -- into a briefly unstoppable fighting force that incinerates London and a couple of other poorly defended cities before being dispatched to the history books by a late-arriving and heavily outnumbered Roman army. (The Romans would hang around England for 400 more years.)

Kingston, who is shot every so often from a low angle to remind us that she is bigger than life, is a suitably fierce warrior queen, handy behind the reins of a chariot, comfortable swinging a broadsword and an inspiring public speaker. Though she too has her sensitive side.

Filmed in the wide-open spaces of Romania, "Warrior Queen" is impressively epic, though its scale is more suggested than actual.

The battle scenes, which employ a familiar ray of visual effects to amp up the chaos, are unusually ambitious for a TV movie; the commodious thatched huts of the Celts, built of real reeds, are persuasive; and the landscape is authentically beautiful, even if it is not authentically British.


'Warrior Queen'

Where: PBS

When: Sunday, 9 p.m.

Rating: The network has rated the movie TV-14SV (may not be suitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for sex and violence).

Alex Kingston...Boudica

Steven Waddington...Prasutagus

Hugo Speer...Dervalloc

Jack Shepherd...Claudius

Michael Feast...Seutonius

Gary Lewis...Magior

Steve John Shepherd...Catus

Leanne Rowe...Siora

Emily Blunt...Isolda

Producer, Matthew Bird. Director, Bill Anderson. Writer, Andrew Davies.

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