Every so often, a ''Masterpiece Theatre" production blows me away. It's a TV series, obviously, but some installments have the more polished density of lush, tightly scripted movies. They're so beautifully realized, they make even HBO's above-average TV films seem a little thin. Recent PBS splendors have included ''The Lost Prince," which won this year's best-miniseries Emmy, and ''The Way We Live Now." And I don't think these miniseries are great just because they've been dolled up with costumes and set in castles; they deploy a raw dramatic power that defies their rich surfaces.
Now add ''The Virgin Queen" to the list of PBS's Sunday night gems, and see it as evidence that ''Masterpiece Theatre" still has a distinguished purpose. The life of Elizabeth I has been filmed many times before, but director Coky Giedroyc and writer Paula Milne both bring a distinctive operatic sweep to their story of the queen who resisted the pressure to marry. ''The Virgin Queen" takes an emotionally charged approach, with a nakedly expressive performance by Anne-Marie Duff as Elizabeth and with the sort of rhythmically edited sequences and heightened soundtrack you might expect in a Baz Luhrmann movie. There's nothing stiff or musty about the two-part miniseries, which premieres tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 2 and concludes next Sunday.
Duff's Elizabeth is brattier and more physically forward than those actresses who've preceded her in the role, particularly Glenda Jackson, who created an eerily complex and shrewd queen in 1971's ''Elizabeth R." She looks a little like Holly Hunter in ''The Piano," with impassioned body language and the stark face of a silent-movie actress. As a young woman, freed from the Tower after her half-sister, Queen ''Bloody" Mary, dies, Duff's Elizabeth is a creature of childlike joy. She's in love with courtier Robert Dudley (Tom Hardy), and the fact that he's married doesn't stop her from openly flirting with him in front of her court. She relishes the giggly friendship of her two ladies in waiting (one of whom will later betray her). But then she also has childlike fits of temper that leave her screaming aloud to herself in the cavernous castle halls. She's fully aware of her royal blood.
As she ages -- and the makeup gives us an older Queen who looks like a sad clown with a white face and orange hair -- Duff's Elizabeth is still ruled by emotion. But she loses her ability to feel pleasure. Duff is a small-framed actress, but she fills her big period dresses with her fierce eyes. Her moods become increasingly terrifying, and she ruthlessly manipulates and stymies those around her. It's amusing to watch her willfully reject the suitors that desperate advisors have chosen for her, secretly loyal to Dudley. ''He is my joy," she tells loyal attendant, Kat (Tara Fitzgerald).
But Elizabeth doesn't accept Dudley when he finally becomes available. By then, she has fully tethered her identity to her virginity, to her place outside the world of lovers. ''I will have no man rule over me," she yells. She trusts only one man among the many who surround her, secretary William Cecil (Ian Hart), to whom she says, ''You are the rock on which I built my reign." Otherwise, she plays the members of her court like puppets, exploiting their hunger for power to rob them of it.
History and politics are all over ''The Virgin Queen," when Elizabeth turns England from a Catholic to a Protestant country, for instance, or her defeat of the Spanish Armada. It's a movie with enough pageantry and period setting to satisfy those who like spectacle. But the miniseries always keeps Elizabeth's psyche in the foreground, as her personal passions create an era that will bear her name.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com.