Sunday 16 March 2008

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Sunday 16 March 2008
Director: Shekhar Kapur
Writers: William Nicholson & Michael Hirst

Cast: Cate Blanchett (Queen Elizabeth), Clive Owen (Walter Raleigh), Geoffrey Rush (Sir Francis Walsingham), Abbie Cornish (Elizabeth Throckmorton), Samantha Morton (Mary Queen Of Scots), Jordi Molla (Philip II of Spain), Rhys Ifans (Robert Reston), Eddie Redmayne (Anthony Babington), Tom Hollander (Sir Amyas Paulet), David Threlfall (Dr John Dee), Adam Godley (William Walsingham), Laurence Fox (Christopher Hatton), William Houston (Christopher Hatton) & Christian Brassington (Archduke Charles of Austria)

Queen Elizabeth finds herself lured into a trap by King Philip of Spain, who has amassed a huge armada of ships to defeat the heretical Queen of England...

An unexpected sequel to Elizabeth (1998), with Cate Blanchett reprising the eponymous role that earned her an Academy Award nomination (twice over, as it turned out in '07). This time, director Shekhar Kapur's sequel targets the eminent historical points of Elizabeth's reign: her virginity, her burgeoning love for Sir Walter Raleigh, the imprisonment of her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, and her role in one of England's most famous naval successes...

The Golden Age is certainly full of incident, as the script by William Nicholson and Michael Hirst disregards historical accuracy -- lending everything the aroma of a "greatest hits compilation". Raleigh lays his cape across a puddle in Elizabeth's path, he regales her court with his discovery of potatoes from the New World, we see the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton), and it all ends with the climactic battle against the Spanish Armada in the Channel – it's all here, snipped and tightened for the purposes of a 114-minute drama.

But, if you enjoy Michael Hirst's TV series The Tudors (which has a similarly cavalier attitude to facts), you won't really mind the liberties taken. And, if you're like 95% of the audience watching, you won't really care that bearded historians are harrumphing after every scene. The Golden Age isn't a great film, but it's beautifully shot, the production values (particularly the costumes) are excellent, and there are a handful of strong performances to relish...

Cate Blanchett is fantastic as Queen Elizabeth, bringing a sense of fragility and emotional awkwardness to the part. I'm sure it helped that she's essentially building on a role she played 9 years ago. Elizabeth's a character who's never known love, and seems resigned to the fact that her royal duties will always take precedence over matters of her own heart.

A chunk of the film revolves around a "romance" between Elizabeth and Walter Raleigh -- played with rough charisma by Clive Owen – which later sours when Raleigh begins to have feelings for the more obtainable Elizabeth Throckmorton (beautiful Abbie Cornish), the Queen's lady-in-waiting. Owen's definitely watchable as the roguish seafaring adventurer, but I particularly liked the way Cornish turned quite a small role into something with more heart than was on the page.

Samantha Morton is also memorable as frosty Mary Queen of Scots, but her character is marginalized in the plot and, subsequently, Morton never gets the opportunity to shine as she could have. It's a real shame. The supporting players have thinly-written parts to play, usually designed to manoeuvre the story around, but Geoffrey Rush is good value as Elizabeth's trusted aide Sir Francis Walsingham.

Away from a few diverting performances and Kapur's occasional visual flair, Elizabeth: The Golden Age is guilty of a simplistic view on the relationship between Protestant England and Roman Catholic Spain; with the Spanish, primarily King Philip II (Jordi Molla) little more than dark-hearted religious zealots. For the purposes of the film, the Spanish are treated as shadowy foreigners plotting away overseas; building a huge armada to defeat the English, so Philip can install his young daughter Isabella as the new Queen of England. Golden Age's Spaniards are boo-hiss villains on par with "The Japs" in Pearl Harbor, at times.

And therein lies the rub with Elizabeth: The Golden Age; it should be a high-brow, sweeping, historical epic -- but its mind is foremost on being a crowd-pleasing, breezy, period-based action flick. It just ends up trying to satisfy both camps averagely (giving into a slew of clichés along the way), but I can't deny it provides a some exciting scenes and a performance from Blanchett that keeps everything on-track...

Movies are kind to historical figures we believe to be virtuous, and Blanchett's Elizabeth certainly had me aching for England to be led by someone as interesting, compelling and patriotic. So it's a shame the dialogue for Elizabeth's "rousing" battle speech to her troops -- while sat on a white horse in shiny armour, long flame-red hair blowing in the breeze -- totally fails to prick the emotions as it should have.

All said, Elizabeth: The Golden Age does become rather silly once its story gets going, and can be held up as a good example of a visually rich, cliché-heavy, inaccurately-written mix of laudable period drama and a dumb action blockbuster. Shame too that the budget didn't stretch to the climactic sea battle -- which resembles nothing more than a few Pirates Of The Caribbean off-cuts -- with Elizabeth spectating from atop the White Cliffs of Dover, dressed only in a flowing, virgin-white dress. The film's good fun at times, definitely -- but Cate Blanchett's performance is far above the quality of the film she's actually starring in.

Universal Studios
Budget: $55 million (approx.)
114 minutes

PICTURE: 1.85:1 SOUND: DTS / Dolby Digital 5.1 / SDDS