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Intrigues for all time

Make no mistake: Power corrupts. What's more, it doesn't matter if it's in 16th-century Spain or modern America. This two-hour cinematic lecture makes a harsh but compelling case against unbridled ambition and religious rule.

Welcome to 1585. While Spain is the most powerful force in the world and run by Philip, a devout Catholic, England is evidently ripe for takeover and ruled by a Protestant queen, Elizabeth. Childless, yet "mother to my people," the fragile yet steely monarch (a mesmerizing Cate Blanchett) appears resolute, in control and, at times, coyly distant.

Encouraged to pre-empt hostile action and penalize British Catholics, the wise Queen stands firm. "I will not punish my people for their beliefs," she declares. How timeless.

After assuring her doubters that "fear creates fear," Elizabeth prevails. And the rest is history.

Geoffrey Rush is superb as her trusted chief aide. Never overbearing but always a persuasive presence, he strikes a difficult balance between close friend and realistic adviser.

As the swashbuckling Sir Walter Raleigh, Clive Owen is dazzling. While the Queen labels him "a political pirate," he never relents, never surrenders and lavishes his charms on anyone who can help him attain his goals. Loyal to England but not always on the up and up, the smiling sailor serves as a savvy companion to the Queen when she most needs one. And when Raleigh tries to win her over with tales of his voyages to the New World, even a tough Elizabeth cannot resist his spell; she longs to escape with him.

Bubbly and loyal Bess (an enchanting and beautiful Abbie Cornish) serves as lady-in-waiting, personal muse and confidante to the queen. Elizabeth's persistent, patient nemesis is her evil cousin Mary (Samantha Morton), who not only longs to be queen but has a great many followers who would kill to help her ascend.

The backdrop for all of this betrayal and deceit is a mix of medieval castle chambers and vast open spaces; horrific torture devices and sweeping grassy knolls. The not-so-subtle symbolism: one is dark and foreboding, the other open and practically screaming with possibility.

Against the steady undercurrent of violence, Elizabeth strives to show a quieter strength: "I have a hurricane in me that will strip Spain bare," she promises.

Despite the many haunting close-up shots, our intrepid leader remains an enigma, heart-wrenchingly lonely.

Grim but with just enough royal pageantry to engage us, the story has timeless aspects that are both disturbing and intriguing: family infighting, backstabbing, power struggles.

Is this 1600 or 2000? Sure, it was the dawning of a "golden age." But few in this saga emerge untarnished.

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