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Elizabeth I depicted in all her singular, regal style

Anne-Marie Duff stars as the monarch in 'The Virgin Queen,' a drama enriched with lavish costumes and scenery.

November 12, 2005|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

When I look up the word "queen" in the dictionary of my mind, the picture there is of England's Elizabeth I, all orange curls and impressive regal brow, who having remained single, unburdened by a husband-king, remains singular. (Four hundred years after her death, she ranked as one of the top 10 Britons in a BBC poll.)

Accordingly she is a queen much dramatized, on stage and screen, from Sarah Bernhardt's 1912 "Les amours de la reine Elisabeth" to Bette Davis (twice) to Miranda Richardson in "Blackadder II" to Cate Blanchett's Oscar-nominated portrayal in "Elizabeth" (with a sequel underway).

Now comes Anne-Marie Duff ("Shameless," "The Magdalene Sisters") in the "Masterpiece Theatre" presentation of the BBC-produced "The Virgin Queen." Beginning Sunday night and concluding Sunday next, it arrives just a month after Britain's Channel 4 premiered its own "Elizabeth I," starring Helen Mirren. Like Glenda Jackson's 1971 "Elizabeth R," it takes her nearly whole, from giddy youth to now-grumpy, now-gracious old age.

And though it will not dethrone Jackson's as the definitive Queen Bess miniseries, or make you feel for its lonely-at-the-top protagonist as deeply as you might, it is, for most of its four hours, diverting educational fun, mostly true to the encyclopedia but not at all dry. Indeed, as written by Paula Milne ("The Politician's Wife") and directed by Coky Giedroyc ("Viva Blackpool," "Stella Does Tricks"), it is at times, if anything, a little too wet.

Still, this is inevitably a piece about sex, because as far as we know, Elizabeth never had any, which makes her both sad and freakish by our standards and something more than human. And as a woman in a world run almost exclusively by men, she had to make her gender both invisible and useful: As seen here, she's both chaste and flirtatious -- "She led by leading men on" is the promotional tag line on the DVD I received for review -- forgoing love not for lack of desire but for love of England, and possibly a sense of self-preservation.

It doesn't help the film, however, that the men upon whom she wastes her attention and heavy breath -- Robert Dudley (Tom Hardy), her early favorite, and later his stepson, the Earl of Essex (Hans Matheson) -- seem such sorry, selfish boobs. (It's not enough she's got the Spanish and the French and the Irish to contend with, she's got to buck up these mopers as well.)

Or perhaps that's the point. Writer Milne has characterized Elizabeth as a proto-feminist, and it may not be accidental that Duff is at her best in scenes when she's knocking heads with other strong women: with Joanne Whalley's terrific "Bloody" Mary I, the half-sister who locked her away in the Tower and whom she followed to the throne, or her governess and later companion, Kat Ashley (Tara Fitzgerald).

England kindly provides castles and manors for period authenticity, though the camera works hard to distract you from the film's demurral to capture the wider world of the late 16th century -- it is all castle corridors and courtyards, with an occasional trip to a meadow or upon a river (but even here the camera is careful not to expose the banks). Crowd scenes are as disappointingly threadbare as a protest march in an old "Columbo."

The money seems to have gone rather into the costumes, which was, after all, a smart place to send it; the film has the look of Hans Holbein's court portraits come to life. (With an occasional nod to Jan Vermeer.) I suppose even then clothes were a kind of entertainment, a sort of political show business.

Indeed, we see Elizabeth constructing her public image, instructing a painter in how to render her hands and hair -- and historically, she did micromanage such things.

The zoom lens goes crazy now and again, and the soundtrack, like "Carmina Burana" out of "Riverdance," is insistent to the point of hilarity. But whenever the film overreaches, there's always Duff to root it back to Earth. Her performance is one of terrific energy and focus.

"I am fluent in five languages and conversant in the principles of philosophy, both ancient and modern," she tells an early doubter as to her abilities, and she can also play the harpsichord and execute a Renaissance buck and wing.

In her mid-30s, the actress is both convincingly regal and human, austere and sexy; at times she seems almost punk rock, at others to be channeling Madonna (who lately seems to be channeling Elizabeth). Watch it for her, if nothing else.


`Masterpiece Theatre: The Virgin Queen'

Where: KCET

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Ratings: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

Anne-Marie Duff...Queen Elizabeth I

Joanne Whalley..."Bloody" Mary

Tom Hardy...Robert Dudley

Emilia Fox...Amy Dudley

Kevin McKidd...Duke of Norfolk

Tara Fitzgerald...Kat Ashley

Ian Hart...William Cecil

Executive producers Justin Bodle (Power), Laura Mackie and Patrick Spence (BBC), Rebecca Eaton (WGBH).

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