Elizabeth: The Golden Age

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Elizabeth The Golden Age: Visually Rich but Heavy-Handed Tone

Jan 9, 2010 (Updated Jan 9, 2010)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Blanchett; settings; costumes; cinematography

Cons:Complex story-telling not always easy to follow; pacing in places; oddly heavy-handed tone

The Bottom Line: Not the movie I hoped it would be, but visually compelling and with some excellent performances.

Cate Blanchett just can't seem to get away from strong queenly roles. She tackled Galadriel in Peter's Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, and she was excellent as Hollywood "queen" Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator (a performance for which she won a best supporting actress Oscar). Twice now, she has also portrayed Queen Elizabeth I for director Shekhar Kapur, first in the 1998 film Elizabeth: The Virgin Queen and almost ten years later in its sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

I didn't know about the first film until after I recently watched the second, so I've seen them out of order. I'm not sure that matters significantly as they each tell about a very different chapter in the life of Elizabeth. The first movie is apparently all about the very beginning of her reign, when she's finding her way as Queen. This second comes much later in her reign when she has clearly settled quite well into her queenly responsibilities, though they still weigh heavy on her shoulders, especially when she finds herself confronted with one of the major tests of her reign: war with Philip of Spain (Jordi Molla) who sends his mighty Armada to crush the English.

Much of the film's story is concerned with the events leading up to the battle of the Armada. It's a convoluted bunch of political intrigue, with the Spaniards using the imprisoned Mary Stuart as a "fall guy" both to the distract the English from their real plans, and to give them proper provocation to "justly" launch a war. The complexity of these intrigues weave over and under the film's other major concern, Elizabeth's fascination with adventurer/pirate Walter Raleigh (played by the handsome and dashing Clive Owen).

Elizabeth, of course, was known as the "virgin queen." She never married, though she did use her position as a single woman as political brokerage more than once, toying with the question of marriage much as a cat might toy with a mouse. It clearly drove some of her closest, long-suffering advisors nearly mad with impatience and worry, a fact that's particularly well-portrayed in this film through the character of her councilor Sir Francis Walsingham (the amazing Geoffrey Rush). Walsingham, growing old and a bit weary at this point in the reign, and struggling with disloyalty within his own family (his younger brother has turned traitor) nevertheless stays staunchly loyal to his Queen. His concerns for her welfare include concern that she produce an heir, something of course Elizabeth would never do.

One of the movie's funniest sequences involves a whole slew of potential suitors, dukes, kings, even czars of distant lands, parading through the court and declaring their intentions. Blanchett plays Elizabeth as bored and amused, though not without kindness, as we see in the kindly, almost maternal guidance she gives to one young duke who clearly is only there because he has to be.

It's good that the film has at least a few moments of humor, as it suffers from some slow pacing and from the complexity of the political intrigues it's trying to portray. Going back and forth, as it does, between the court of Elizabeth, the scheming Spaniards and their spies in England, and the frustrated, scheming Mary Stuart, the perspective and tone jump around a lot. Even when we're at court, we keep seeing little moments in Elizabeth's life that we're not entirely sure are adding up to anything story-wise, though Blanchett does manage to pull together a compelling portrait of a powerful, strong woman who is nonetheless lonely and sad. The film presents her as a woman who, in certain moments, would much prefer a simpler life and the possibility of love. Raleigh is her great temptation ~ she is clearly terribly attracted to him, but the best she can do is vacillate between lording over him as his Queen (and hoping that will fascinate) and living vicariously and sadly through Bess Throckmorton, her beautiful lady-in-waiting (Abbie Cornish) who eventually wins Raleigh's heart.

The romantic angle, in fact, ends up a feeling a bit forced, there both to up the appeal of such a period kind of film for modern movie-goers, and to try to deepen the portrait of Elizabeth. Again, it's to Blanchett's credit that she's able to invest Elizabeth with such real humanity and vulnerability, even under the wigs, heavy make-up, huge gowns and collars. Director Kapur helps her out in that regard by giving the audience plenty of peeks into some of Elizabeth's more private moments: time spent with Bess in the Queen's dressing room, a long horse-back ride and a fireside chat with Raleigh, anxious moments spent with the court astrologer, some moments where we simply see Elizabeth looking at herself (minus wig and gown) in the mirror. The private and public Elizabeths are often at war in this portrayal, though her fears and vulnerability do erupt in public a few times, especially when we see the tremendous guilt she feels for the beheading of Mary Stuart (a fate which befell her own mother when she was a young child, remember, and one which she feared might be her own if England ever fell to Spain).

The lavish sets and costumes are quite brilliant, with the rich, deep colors of the ladies' dresses standing out in vivid contrast against the bright, light walls of stone palaces and cathedrals. The cinematography is beautifully done, and many of the shots and camera angles fascinating, lending even more complexity to the many shifts in perspective.

The film suffers most from a heavy-handed tone that paints the Spaniards (and their Catholic religion) as dark and evil, with Elizabeth, despite her vulnerability and confusion on many levels, as a shining "white knight" ~ and quite literally a knight in one of the later scenes, where she lets her hair down and dresses in shining chain mail, looking for all the world like an English Joan d'Arc. While it's true that anti-Catholic sentiment in England was running rampant at that time (following the troubled days under Bloody Mary Tudor, Elizabeth's half-sister) I found it very odd that the battle between England and Spain was portrayed less as a battle between two "Christian" countries who held to very different forms of Christianity, and more of a modern spirit versus a supposedly antiquated, superstitious religion. To whatever extent scholars disagree about Elizabeth's private religious preferences (whether she was as deeply Protestant as some claim, or actually more Catholic in her own sensibilities and more of a pragmatic Protestant) it would be almost easy to forget, while watching this portrayal, that she was after all, a Christian Queen. Philip the Spain may have viewed her as a heretic, but Elizabeth was a woman of prayer. That doesn't really come through here: the director pulls more on the image of Elizabeth as some sort of earth-mother/goddess, which I found jarring and disturbing.

I find myself in a quandary regards rating. The setting, costumes, cinematography and acting are all excellent; the story itself and the heavy-handed and somewhat odd overall tone leave a lot to be desired. If I could give it 3 1/2 stars, I would. Since I can't, I'll charitably round up to 4. Fans of any of the main actors, or of historic English drama, will likely want to see it.

~befus, 2010

Recommend this product? Yes

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