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She Ain't No Human Being.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

MAY 10, 1999:  Queens fascinate us. Maybe it's because we know a woman strong enough to take charge in a society where men call the shots must be very strong indeed. Think of a chess board. Kings reign, but queens rule.

That fascination is at the heart of Elizabeth (1998, R), an engaging if ultimately cynical portrait of a queen in the making. This is the young Elizabeth, not the wise matron who shows up as Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love. As played by Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth I is stubborn, smart, and naive. She thinks she can be herself—carefree, honest, disdainful of convention—and still command respect in the turbulent political world of the 16th century. The movie is about her education in the sources and use of power, and it functions as kind of a Masterpiece Theater version of The Prince. Elizabeth slowly discovers that politics is always personal and no friend is reliable when the stakes are money, religion, and land. Blanchett makes the transformation convincing; you go from rooting for her to eventually fearing her, not unlike Michael Corleone in The Godfather. It's almost a one-woman show. The only cast member who can stand up to Blanchett's fierce performance is Geoffrey Rush, who's deliciously wicked as a knife-wielding court advisor, the kind of man you want at your side but never at your back. The historical faithfulness may be suspect, but as a neo-feminist fable of ambition and gender, Elizabeth is fine entertainment.

Katherine Hepburn, regal in her own right, plays a different kind of queen in The Lion in Winter (1968, PG). As Eleanor of Aquitane, the embattled wife of Henry II, she is more dangerous than she looks. Kept under lock and key by her husband (a surprisingly robust Peter O'Toole), she nevertheless manipulates affairs of state via her three sons, all of whom lust after their father's throne. Adapted from James Goldman's Broadway hit, the screenplay is rife with nasty one-liners (Eleanor to Henry: "I have a confession to make—I don't much like our children") and duplicitous scheming. Hepburn won her third Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal, which like the movie itself is more fun than it is persuasive. She's matched well by O'Toole and the rest of the cast, including Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton in their screen debuts.

Quentin Crisp gave a twist to the screen queen in Sally Potter's gender-bending Orlando (1992, PG-13). Casting the flamboyantly gay writer as the aging Elizabeth I is one of many sly moves in the film, which nimbly traces changing gender roles across the last 400 years. Crisp's brief appearance makes for an instructive contrast with Dench's considerably more butch portrayal.

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