by Mel Valentin
"Elizabeth: The Golden Age," reunites Academy Award winning actress Cate Blanchett and director Shekhar Kapur ("The Four Feathers") nine years after their Blanchett’s career-making performance in "Elizabeth," a historical drama about the 16th-century English queen who ruled over a pivotal period in English history, specifically England’s development into an empire with overseas colonies and unquestioned control of the high seas. This larger historical development forms the background for court intrigues, plots and counter-plots, and inevitably the “enterprise of England,” a plot formulated by Elizabeth’s Catholic opponents in England and Spain to depose and replace her with the Scottish queen by the use of force, a sea-based invasion commonly referred to as the “Spanish Armada.”At 52, the so-called Virgin Queen, Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett), still struggles against Catholic opposition, real and imagined, to control England. Unmarried and without a direct heir, Elizabeth’s opponents look to Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton), next in line to the English throne, as her successor. Of course, they hope to restore Catholicism as the state religion over the Protestantism that Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, promoted over Catholicism. Elizabeth’s chief spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), keeps Elizabeth safe through a ruthless program of intimidation and, where necessary, torture. It’s Walsingham who discovers the plot against Elizabeth orchestrated by the Catholic king of Spain, Philip II (Jordi Mollà).
"Pomp, pageantry, badly behaving Catholics, and a soap opera queen."
At court, Elizabeth accepts the Spanish ambassador and his entourage with the respect due his position, despite his constant protests about the commercial and financial harm English privacy has had on Spain. From Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth favors Elizabeth “Bess” Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish). Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), a rakish adventurer and part-time pirate, arrives at Elizabeth’s court hoping to get her approval to expand an English colony in the New World. To flatter the English queen, he calls the new land he’s claimed for her “Virginia.” Elizabeth quickly warms to Raleigh’s charms, as does Bess, who Raleigh begins to court. Over time, however, Elizabeth and Raleigh develop a relationship of near-equals, a relationship that remains unconsummated. Philip II, however, puts his plan into motion and sends the Spanish Armada to invade England and depose Elizabeth.
Historically simplistic and, unsurprisingly, historically inaccurate, giving Walter Raleigh a heretofore unknown, but nonetheless heroic, role in helping to defeat the Spanish Armada, Elizabeth: The Golden Age paints an equally unsurprising unsympathetic view of Catholic Spain, depicted here as soul-crushingly authoritarian, and it’s weak-willed, superstitious, wobbly-legged king, Philip II (he suffered from gout). Elizabeth and England represent progressive values or what passed for progressive values in the 16th century. Early on, Elizabeth talks pragmatically about the Catholic/Protestant problem in England (too many Catholics to imprison or execute) and instead suggests that deeds, not thoughts or beliefs, should be punished. Alas, that doesn’t get very far with the ruthless, conniving Walsingham, who takes whatever actions he deems appropriate to protect England and his queen.
Focusing as it does on Elizabeth’s inner life (i.e., doubts, unrequited love, etc.) and, presumably, her humanity, Elizabeth: The Golden Age takes more than one soap opera turn, especially when Elizabeth discovers Raleigh’s secret relationship with Bess. For what it’s worth, Elizabeth did indeed remove Raleigh from her favor, only to restore him several years later after her anger had cooled off. This more human Elizabeth, however, isn’t always as well written as she could have been. As written by William Nicholson and Michael Hirst, Elizabeth is moody, occasionally petulant, fearful, full of doubt, and when overwhelmed by doubt, eager to embrace the prophecies of the court astrologer, Dr. John Dees (David Threlfall).
Whatever its faults, story wise, Elizabeth: The Golden Age is just as visually engaging as its predecessor. The budget allowed for exquisite period detail, from the costumes to the production design, with impressive cinematography to match. Director Shekhar Kapur perhaps favors overhead or high-angle shots one too many times, but it’s hard to argue with his eye for visual composition and impressive camera moves meant to reflect the sweep and grandeur of Elizabethan England. Kapur is nothing if not a visual sensualist, a filmmaker obsessed with creating a richly immersive pageant of color and movement, which he succeeds at beautifully (if not as often as he’d like).Then again, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" is Cate Blanchett’s film. Probably the best actress of her generation (with movie star cheekbones), Blanchett’s performance is a wonder to watch, Elizabeth’s mercurial moods signaled by the most minute gesture or change in body language. While he has less to do here than in "Elizabeth," Geoffrey Rush is still given a handful of character moments, none more moving than his confrontation with his Catholic brother. As Raleigh, Clive Owen is obviously enjoying himself, seemingly borrowing gestures and body language from another Golden Age, Hollywood’s and one its most identifiable movie stars, Errol Flynn. It’s a pity then that this time out, the screenplay fails to match the production values or the performances.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=15744&reviewer=402
originally posted: 10/12/07 18:10:39