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114 min.
Release Date
elizabeth the golden age

Imagining there is polish on every knob, color in every face, and bright detail sparking from every object in 1585 is ludicrous. That’s a court artist’s fantasy. But that’s what Elizabeth: The Golden Age suggests, that the Elizabethan Era was as brimming with majesty as that period’s art shows us. Director Shekhar Kapur idealizes the sixteenth-century world as if it’s filled with trompe-l’œil detail, with colors and objects and gold seeping from the film stock like runny paint from a canvas. It’s a superficial and overstated approach when compared to the picture’s comparatively coarse 1998 predecessor, called just Elizabeth.

Cate Blanchett reprises the role that opened the world’s eyes to her greatness, ironically giving it less depth, and frankly less character. Having achieved the status as living symbol at the end of the first film, we would imagine Elizabeth intends to keep up her hard-edged disposition, solidifying her royal persona as The Virgin Queen. Apparently not true. Elizabeth laughs in open court with her female attendants and smiles entirely too often. Blanchett’s makeup lacks the pale, doll-like quality her character resolved to keep at the end of Elizabeth. Instead, her humanity breaks through in every scene, never giving us what should have been a conflict of outward restraint versus inner desire.

And what could Elizabeth desire so heartily? None other that the dashing Clive Owen as Sir Walter Raleigh. He’s a man so taken with his queen that he risks a rush from her guard to wave his cape before her, just to lay it down over a puddle so that she might avoid wet feet. Owen’s Raleigh takes the guise of a swashbuckler; he brandishes a sword and wears his stuffy sixteenth-century garb casually. His charming looks incite Elizabeth and her attendants to all but audibly sigh in his presence. I’m sure Owen is used to this in real life too, at least the adoration part (though something tells me Owen carries a sword and swashbuckles now and then; he just seems like that kind of guy). Raleigh’s adventures bring him back from The New World, namely the 1584 expedition where Raleigh named “Virginia” after his Virgin Queen.

Although, all is not well in England. Catholics despise their queen, favoring Mary of Scots (Samantha Morton, in another strong performance), who remains locked away “for her protection”. Mary sends suspicious notes, read by an overseer and jailer appointed by Elizabeth. For reasons which I won’t explain here so as not to ruin the plot, but you could probably find out by opening a history book, Mary is, as it seems, connected to Spain—specifically to the film’s villain, King Philip II of Spain (Jordi Mollà). The pious Catholic king builds a grand seabound armada, to eventually dethrone the Protestant Elizabeth and replace her with Mary. And just as in Elizabeth, her enemy sends a religious fanatic out to assassinate her. Jesuit priest Robert Reston (Rhys Ifans) enlists the help of other extremists, providing an occasional cutaway to bizarre religious behavior to show us he’s the bad guy.

Meanwhile, for long hours Raleigh relates stories of sea travel and the open air; Elizabeth and her attendants listen like schoolgirls. As Raleigh enters the picture, Elizabeth’s humanity is Kapur’s main concern. We see her smoking dope, riding horses, and visiting a prognosticating astrologist. Elizabeth “Bess” Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish) is one of The Queen’s attendants, her favorite in fact. Elizabeth lives vicariously through Bess, asking her what kind of man she likes, if only to hear a woman talk about men, something she herself cannot do. She bathes with Bess fawning over her. And occasionally she struggles to reconcile her actions as a queen with her desires as a woman. When Bess beds and becomes pregnant by Raleigh, even marrying him in secret, she resolves to leave her queen.

Blanchett’s portrayal of Elizabeth’s reaction to this is the film’s best, most authentic piece of character Elizabeth: The Golden Age has to offer. In other scenes, she seems unmotivated by what she does. We never understand why she’s suddenly cruel to Sir Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), whose role is curious lacking presence in this sequel. We never understand the distanced relationship between Elizabeth and her cousin Mary (despite the historical inaccuracy of putting them in the same scene set in 1585, what a display of talent Cate Blanchett and Samantha Morton could have brought to those hypothetical frames). Alas, Elizabeth’s only relatable emotional concern is her behavior toward Raleigh and the love for him she cannot express. If Kapur focused on her forbidden romances and resultant loneliness, perhaps he would have made a successful movie.

By the time Spain’s forces have arrived off the shores of England, Elizabeth is suited in armor, appearing unexpectedly like an Amazonian Queen with long flowing hair and battle in her eyes. She gives that clichéd pre-battle speech we see in movies all too frequently; she rides up and down the line saying inspiring things, her men cheering along the way. All I could think of was Gladiator, Braveheart, The Lord of the Rings, or the dozen other movies that did this scene better and with more rousing words.

Kapur overextends himself, putting too much detail on what could have been another great character study of one of history’s most complex figures. In its place, we have an obsession with the Elizabethan Era, as opposed to the queen herself. A few months back this picture was just called The Golden Age, without the prefix Elizabeth. Perhaps the original title would have been more appropriate, as it suggested a film about a period of time, rather than a single character. Even if superior performances adorn this movie, I can envision a better, possibly third entry to this series, with Elizabeth at her last legs—giving Blanchett the opportunity to match Bette Davis’ take on the role. Only when Elizabeth’s own personal interests are helplessly connected to her political ones will the character be dramatically interesting. Here, that barely happens, much to my disappointment. We’re disconnected from the story’s main pieces, as if reading different chapters in a history book—a somewhat inaccurate, dramatized one.

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