Cinema: Elizabeth the magnificent

Elizabeth 12 Buffalo 66 15 Sixth Happiness no cert Divorcing Jack 15 A Moment of Innocence no cert A Moment of Innocence (no cert)
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The Independent Culture
Until recently, Elizabeth I and Glenda Jackson were inseparable in my mind. Then I spotted the woman herself (Glenda, not Elizabeth) in the checkout queue at my local Tesco, which removed the shine from her regal glamour. And after seeing Cate Blanchett take the throne in Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth, the right of succession seems clear. The Virgin Queen's crown now belongs to Blanchett.

Blanchett's Elizabeth has none of Jackson's vinegary gravitas, Bette Davis's self-centredness or Miranda Richardson's savagery. And she's no virgin, either. Instead, she's a guffawing good-time girl toughened up in the courtly school of hard knocks. At first, she angsts and blubbers before giving the order to send her subjects into battle. By the close of the film, she has locked up her conscience in a royal strong-box, and is colluding with her spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), to put her Catholic enemies to the sword.

The political plot provides Blanchett with her best acting opportunities: a pair of scenes in which she rehearses her first major face-off with Parliament, subsequently finding her feet as a stateswoman mid-speech, are a grand achievement. But the romantic element is tackled less convincingly, and its weakness sometimes threatens to puncture the film's wider accomplishments. Elizabeth's lover Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) is such a petulant ponce that her interest in him undermines your respect for her intelligence. Since the script requires him to don padded bloomers and gallop through a field on a white horse, it's not all his fault. But it does mean that Elizabeth's icy abandonment of love for politics comes as a relief.

The supporting cast is tremendous: Kathy Burke, uglified with rotten teeth and poxy skin, makes a poignant Mary Tudor, all palpitation and panicky cruelty. Christopher Eccleston's Norfolk is a granite-browed hard bastard so magnetic that you sneakily wish the film was about him. Geoffrey Rush's Walsingham has more of the night about him than Michael Howard, and his performance casts a dark shadow over the whole film.

Kapur's direction has a lavish, sinister energy, tempered by a sensitivity to the potential silliness of a film which puts a legion of British character actors into tights. His movie owes much to Ken Russell's The Devils and a little more to Carry on Henry: he can skip comfortably from horrific scenes of heretic-burning to jokey sequences staffed by almost-actors like Angus Deayton and Eric Cantona. Or he can suddenly flash up a caption reading "THE VATICAN" and cue John Gielgud in a gratuitous papal guest- spot. If he'd wheeled on Dr David Starkey, he might even have got away with that, too.

But unfortunately, Michael Hirst's script (bland statements of intent evacuated of modern contractions) lags a long way behind. In fact, the disjunction between the film's luscious monumentalist pictures and its ho-hum dialogue is sometimes painfully obvious. The final scene of the film, for instance, has a visual magnificence rarely seen in British cinema. But Kapur has allowed Hirst to top it with a closing line of equally rare redundancy.

Vincent Gallo wouldn't have made such a misjudgement. He's the greatest living director. His first film is a masterpiece. That's what he says, anyway. If you've ever read an interview with him, you'll know that self- deprecation isn't his forte. However, he turned up to the screening I attended, blinking and bashful and doing bunny-rabbit eyes at the audience. "Hope you enjoy my movie," he grinned. I did. A lot. Buffalo 66 is undoubtedly the most enthralling American movie I've seen this year.

Like any self-respecting egomaniac, Gallo also takes the lead as Billy Brown, a boy whose life is ruined by a lost $10,000 bet on the 1991 Superbowl. The film opens just after his release from prison. He's cold, he's miserable, and he's desperate for somewhere to piss. So desperate that he kidnaps a slutty-looking teenage tap-dancer called Layla (Christina Ricci), and forces her to drive until they reach a suitable tree. After putting her through this terrifying ordeal, he then asks her a favour - will she accompany him on a visit to his parents, and pretend to be his wife? Amazingly, she concurs, setting off a story in which Gallo's sewer-rat sharpness and Ricci's indecent pliancy make an extraordinary, unnerving combination.

John Cassavetes provides the model for Gallo's direction: jump cuts, noisy acting and bitter emotionalism, and used to startling effect. But the influence of Dennis Potter also looms large: in one uncomfortably perverse scene, Billy's father (played by the old Cassavetes retainer Ben Gazzara) ushers his phoney daughter-in-law into the bedroom and puts on an LP, which he claims is the instrumental track from a Sinatra album. A spotlight beams down upon him, and he lip-synchs to a melodious voice - not Sinatra's, not Gazzara's, but (as the credits later reveal) the voice of Vincent Gallo Snr. In a later sequence, Ricci is fixed under a similar illumination as she tap- dances on the boards of a bowling alley. These are moments of beautiful, edgy strangeness. Potter would have applauded, I'm sure.

Gallo also has a quick instinct for scuzzy detail: he makes some chocolate doughnuts look like a plateful of dog turds, he prolongs a big close- up on the pale, bloated belly of Billy's backward best mate (a creditably hideous Kevin Corrigan), he lingers on Ricci's overexposed, underaged cleavage. The film's faults are all in the editing: Gallo just can't bear to cut anything that showcases his livewire virtuosity. But if he gets himself a dispassionate collaborator with a sure scissor hand, his next film may well be a masterpiece.

A credit for the Arts Council on the opening titles of a film is enough to make some of my colleagues groan. Maybe this was the reason for the high level of absenteeism at the press screening of Sixth Happiness. A lottery-funded film about a bisexual Parsee with brittle bone disease, it's not the sort of project that would persuade a cash-randy producer to whop his cheque book out on the table. But it is a strikingly funny, highly unusual film that radiates toasty-warm compassion. I came out of the cinema feeling that my horizons had been broadened and my prejudices challenged. That's the most convincing reason for buying a Lottery ticket I have yet to discover.

Sixth Happiness is based on the memoirs of Firdaus Kanga, who also stars as a fictionalised version of himself. It's a story of family life, sentimental education, sexual awakening, and what it's like to live in a body that will remain fragile and childlike forever. Director Waris Hussein gets the film off to a shaky start, but Kanga's story is too rich and unique to be spoilt by a bit of stagy camerawork. The film bristles with idiosyncratic humour, and contains a wealth of tender surprises (when was the last time you saw a disabled actor doing a sex scene?) Catch it at the NFT while you can.

Divorcing Jack, David Caffrey's black comedy - based on the Colin Bateman novel - is more fitfully interesting. It uses a sharply original setting (millennial Belfast, during elections to a new Northern Irish parliament) to thrash some life into a pretty mouldy old plot (drunken journalist finds he is the prime suspect in a murder case, and goes on the run from the killers and the police). The script has a generous quota of witty one-liners (including some good observational gags about the Irish penchant for corny country music and the absence of black people from Belfast), and its deft handling of the political issues puts films like The Boxer and Resurrection Man to shame. But the script can't find a plausible reason for its luckless hero, Dan Starkey (David Thewlis) not to go straight to the police. It wastes its spunky heroine (Rachel Griffiths, as a gun-toting nun-o-gram). And it also attempts some rather hopeless forays into psychological realism: a subplot about a sexual relationship between Starkey's wife (Laine Megaw) and the IRA boss who kidnaps her is treated with such glibness that even Thewlis's high-energy acting can't prevent this material from seeming both risible and repulsive. It's a pity it couldn't have matched its political nous and execution-fresh gallows humour with stronger characterisation.

Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up was about a young man who fraudulently impersonated the film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and based on a true story. Mohsen Makhmalbaf's A Moment of Innocence is about a young man recruited by the director to impersonate him in a re-enactment of an incident from his teenage years. Self-reflexivity and the new Iranian cinema go together like Persia and purdah, and Makhmalbaf's gentle moral fable is another variation on what has now become the primary theme of that country's film-making. By re-evaluating the mistakes of the past, his characters find accord in the present: an appropriate message in the light of recent diplomatic events. The film's final shot, held in freeze-frame under the credits, is a little sliver of magic.