Replete with smashing finery and looks as sharp as daggers, this political thriller cum romance deals with the early reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603). The year is 1554: Following Henry VIII's split from the Roman Catholic Church, his Catholic daughter, Mary Tudor (Kathy Burke), assumes the throne and begins persecuting Protestants, earning the nickname "Bloody Mary." Our first glimpse of Mary's half sister, Elizabeth (the radiant Cate Blanchett), reveals an unabashedly sensual and appealing young woman in the throes of first love with dashing Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), Earl of Leicester. The scrofulous Mary quickly packs her off to the Tower of London, where Mary's nefarious advisers -- including the sleek and sinister Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston) -- plot to have Elizabeth executed for treason. But Mary does an about-face and anoints Elizabeth her successor, on the condition that she adhere to Mary's Catholic agenda, and she takes the throne amidst a storm of troubles, including court intrigue, touchy foreign relations, a weakened army and a depleted treasury. Chief adviser Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough) urges her to build alliances through strategic marriage, to either the King of Spain or the fruity French Duc d'Anjou (Vincent Cassel). Elizabeth's chief of spies, the shadowy Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), on the other hand, uses his knowledge of her love for Dudley to urge a different course. Faced with Dudley's personal and political duplicity, Elizabeth ultimately renounces all claims to a private life and assumes the indomitable mask of the monarch known to history as the Virgin Queen. Most of the film's lead performances are satisfying, though Fiennes -- Ralph's brother -- is a weak link. And Indian director Shekhar Kapur's (BANDIT QUEEN) direction is athletic and majestic. But despite the sumptuous regalia, exterminating priests, misty castle ramparts, feverish couplings and occasional violence, the conspicuous lack of emotional resonance makes this film QUEEN MARGOT's poor cold English cousin.