Having established himself with the acclaimed and hard-hitting Bandit Queen, director Shekhar Kapur was never likely to handle British history with kid gloves. But though he never shies from the violence and harshness in his subject, Kapur's portrait of Elizabeth I, in this Oscar-winning production, offers a robust but romantic depiciton of the Virgin Queen.
Reigning monarch Mary Tudor (Kathy Burke) is dying; her stepsister Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) is next in line. Mary is determined to bring Catholicism back to Britain, but Elizabeth is a confirmed Protestant. When Elizabeth accedes to the throne in 1558, aged just 25, religion proves to be one of many problems facing the country.
Attempting to reunite Britain's warring factions while battling off the French, the Spanish and even death squads sanctioned by the Vatican, Elizabeth soon learns to deal with the sexist antagonism that faces her in Parliament and takes charge in a manner befitting her father - the famously unsentimental Henry VIII.
Along the way, she is forced to ditch her lover, Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) while dodging proposals from all over Europe that are more business mergers than offers of marriage. And she must also learn on the job, advised initially by the trustworthy Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough) and later by the sinister Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush). He's a man not to be trusted except by Elizabeth, to whom he hitches his star, sensing the steel within that will see her wield power. And so she does - the final scenes see her forever eschew love, entering court in the guise of the Virgin Queen.