Elizabeth is a lavish historical epic about personal transformation, showing the metamorphosis of a headstrong princess into the ruthlessly efficient national icon, Elizabeth I.

Screenwriter Michael Hirst pits the personal squarely against the political as he chronicles Elizabeth's ascension and eventual consolidation of power. Looking back 340 years -- through the filters of both democracy and contemporary ideas of individual fulfillment -- he finds Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) in her 20s, regal, trusting, easily swayed by love and about to learn the harsh realities of exchanging her own "I" for the royal "we."

While Hirst charts Elizabeth's course from pleasure-loving royal to fearsome ruler, director Shekhar Kapur (Bandit Queen) constructs a film of ravishing beauty, as swooningly romantic, turbulent and convention-defying as its subject.

From the moment Elizabeth assumes the throne, the question of marriage arises. Her husband should be chosen with an eye to establishing a political alliance with France or Spain, but her heart belongs to an Englishman, Lord Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes, only slightly more expressive than brother Ralph), whose duplicitous actions speak louder than his reassuring words.

She's also inherited a fractious legacy of religious warfare from her father, Henry VIII, who broke England's ties to the Catholic Pope and established the Protestant Church of England so he could divorce his first wife and marry Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn. The filmmakers put this in the forefront, with Kapur staging a staggering opening sequence of Protestant "heretics" being burned alive under orders from Elizabeth's fervently Catholic predecessor, her half-sister, "Bloody Mary."

And of Elizabeth's many courtside advisers, only the icy tactician and remorseless assassin, Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), genuinely wants her to have a firm grip on the throne. So what's a girl to do?

Elizabeth proposes that the lively monarch makes a personal choice for the greater good, spurning all suitors and converting herself into the rigid, powdered "Virgin Queen," a secular Virgin Mary suitable for framing and worship. It's an interesting bit of historical revisionism: that, court intrigue, religious recriminations and bloody battles aside, England's great Elizabethan era really began with one woman having a power makeover.