Before The Eel’s opening credits have even begun to roll, seemingly ordinary Tokyo salaryman Takuro (Koji Yakusho) has reread the anonymous letter accusing his wife of adultery, contemplated his response while fishing on a nearby pier, and then returned home to find his wife with her lover and stab her to death. Blood splatters the camera lens, yet this film is not Japanese New Wave provocateur Shohei Imamura’s return to his frenzied ’60s and ’70s style. The 72-year-old director’s first film since 1989’s elegiac Black Rain is as surprisingly serene as Shinichiro Ikebe’s rather Celtic score.

The first clue that The Eel will be gentler than such films as Vengeance Is Mine, Imamura’s 1979 study of a serial killer, is the casting of Yakusho, best known for the lead role in Shall We Dance? Yakusho’s Takuro is not the typical Imamura protagonist, who tends to be scruffy, manic, and provincial; he’s well-meaning, quiet, and not noticeably more repressed than the average Tokyo office worker. (He has a little in common, in fact, with the henpecked shop owner in Nishi Ginza Station, the 1958 oddity that had its local premiere in this spring’s Imamura retrospective at the National and Sackler galleries.) Takuro only begins to seem unusually uptight eight years later, after he’s released from prison and relocates to Sawara, a small town where the locals are much more outgoing than in the big city.

Moving into an abandoned shop with the pet eel he acquired while in prison, Takuro sets up as a barber—a trade he learned behind bars. He needs a job to please his parole officer, a genial Buddhist priest, but Takuro isn’t especially welcoming to potential customers. The ex-con seems to have chosen the shop principally because it’s right next to a river, so that he can fish every day. When Takuro suggests to local UFO nut Masaki (Ken Kobayashi) that the latter’s interest in extraterrestrials suggests that he’s afraid of people, Masaki has an astute response: “Just like you?”

Then a pretty young woman who’s never been seen in town before walks by Takuro’s shop. When the barber later finds her unconscious—she’s taken an overdose of pills—he’s reluctant to get involved. He’s been told to avoid trouble while he’s on parole and, besides, the comatose woman bears an unsettling resemblance to his dead wife. (It is, of course, the same actress: Misa Shimizu, best known in the U.S. for her role as the woman who enables a male friend’s gay romance in Okoge.)

Keiko recovers from her suicide attempt, and comes to the shop to thank Takuro. Soon, she’s insinuated herself as the barber’s assistant, and her charm has turned the shop into a success. She sets her heart on Takuro, who rejects her symbolically each time he declines to accept the boxed dinner she makes for one of his fishing trips. The almost-too-perfect Keiko has her own bad memories of Tokyo, but the problems she’s fled haven’t been safely buried. Eventually, they follow her to Sawara and involve Takuro, getting him into just the sort of situation parolees are counseled to avoid.

Adapted from an Akira Yoshimura novel by Imamura, Motofumi Tomikawa, and Imamura’s son Daisuke Tengan, The Eel won the 1997 Cannes Palme d’Or. If it misses the full vigor of the director’s best work, it does demonstrate his skill at shifting tone and style: from methodical thriller to tranquil meditation, sweet romantic comedy to violent gangster slapstick. (At one point, a fellow ex-con who’s been trying to chant his way back into society tries to strangle Takuro with some prayer beads.) To Imamura, existence itself is a wild jumble of genres.

Although The Eel’s title character is an unapologetically brazen phallic symbol, the creature doesn’t haunt the film the way his predecessor, a malevolent pet carp, did Imamura’s more fevered 1966 film, The Pornographers. The eel is a benign confidant, a symbol of virility but also of nature’s perseverance in the face of human depravity. Japanese society is just as mad in this movie as in any of the director’s work, but both redemption and evasion now seem possible. Takuro doesn’t escape, yet the story holds out that possibility—a year or two away, but still far closer than for the typical Imamura protagonist. In most of the director’s films, life inevitably leads to murder. In The Eel, murder offers the prospect of life.

Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth is set centuries and realms apart from his previous film, Bandit Queen, yet both are true-life stories of powerful women who become leaders in societies where religion and sexuality are central issues. While Kapur’s contemporary bandit queen was liberated from Indian social convention by her rape, his Queen Elizabeth I rules 16th-century England by the power of her virginity—or supposed virginity, since Michael Hirst’s script (controversial in the U.K.) provides the young woman with a lover, Lord Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes, Ralph’s brother).

Elizabeth opens with the burning of three heretics—Protestant, since the Catholics are currently in charge—but such brutal pageantry is uncharacteristic. (Elizabeth’s failed assault on her Scottish enemies is depicted only with a tracking shot of the aftermath.) Most of the film takes place in dark rooms and corridors, places that suggest the claustrophobic condition of being a monarch with many enemies. Shot in numerous medieval castles and homes, the film has a grandness that’s altogether more chilling than most treatments of great European kings and queens.

At the film’s outset, frolicsome Elizabeth Tudor (Cate Blanchett) just eludes her dying half-sister Mary’s lethal plans for her, surviving long enough to become queen herself. It’s no simple transition, for Elizabeth is a Protestant who intends to re-establish the Church of England, as well as the child of Henry VIII’s second wife, which makes her a bastard to Catholics who didn’t accept the king’s divorce. She is also a woman, so such advisers as Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough) believe she will be easily swayed. Elizabeth may now be “queen of England, Ireland, and France,” as she is ambitiously crowned, but she is also a prisoner. “I wish you to show me her majesty’s sheets every morning,” instructs Cecil. “I wish to know all her proper functions.”

Many powerful people—played by suitably powerful actors—wish to control or destroy Elizabeth. Her enemies include the Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston), France’s Mary of Guise (Fanny Ardant), Monsieur de Foix (soccer star Eric Cantona), and the pope (John Gielgud). Elizabeth’s savior is the mysterious (and mysteriously loyal) Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), the Queen’s Master of Spies. He insures that her 44-year reign will not end in its first days.

The Bombay-based Kapur doesn’t take many obvious liberties with Elizabeth’s consolidation of power—the tale is distorted mostly by chronological compression—but neither does he approach it with dainty reverence. Shooting in an athletic contemporary style, cinematographer Remi Adefarasin sends the camera roaring down hallways, spinning around conspirators, and circling an upside-down torture victim. At its most flamboyant, Elizabeth suggests that Kapur learned his Shakespeare from Orson Welles.

In such a context, it’s easy to appreciate contemporary parallels, whether to Margaret Thatcher or Salman Rushdie. (The pope guarantees Elizabeth’s assassin passage into Heaven.) Kapur and Hirst’s most modern notion, though, is that Elizabeth played a supremely contrived role, deciding to become the Virgin Queen so as the replace the pope’s girl, the Virgin Mary, in the people’s affections. This every-queen-a-star approach requires an exceptionally poised leading lady, and Blanchett proves to be just that. This movie may not depict things exactly as they went down, but Blanchett makes you believe that this is how Elizabeth would have handled them if they had.

In Gods and Monsters, which was previously reviewed when it was shown in the Reel Affirmations film festival, writer-director Bill Condon imagines the final days in the life of gay Hollywood director James Whale. Hunky new gardener Clayton (Brendan Fraser) finds himself helping Whale’s longtime housekeeper (Lynn Redgrave) take care of the cantankerous filmmaker (Ian McKellen), who’s best known for Frankenstein and Show Boat. The film, which takes its title from Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, flashes back to the director’s impoverished English childhood and his World War I experiences, and plays with notions of Whale as something of a mad scientist himself. Fraser (equipped with a haircut that suggests the monster’s square head) is fine, and Redgrave hasn’t had so much fun on screen in years. Still, the movie is best when concentrating on the elder director, living in refined torment amid bright, comfortable surroundings. McKellen’s Whale carries the film, shifting from anger at his ruined career to nostalgia for the wide-open Hollywood of the ’30s—and from attempting to charm the unsophisticated Clayton to trying (successfully) to shock him.CP