Elizabeth: The Golden Age Review
With his 1998 Elizabeth, Shekhar Kapur can be cited as a pioneer of the twenty-first century genre of history-as-entertainment, which seeks to add a sleek pacy gloss and a modern feel to the past in order to keep audiences from getting bored and distracted by all that yawn-inducing factual density. Now we have Rome, with half the characters spouting cockney demotic and The Tudors, where the short stout Henry VIII has morphed into tall slim Jonathan Rhys Meyers. The question is: how far can you massage history before failing suspension of disbelief pulls it all apart?
Elizabeth did well in this area, simplifying the politics of the young queen's ascent and early vulnerability in order to get to grips with the real story of how personal need and desire had to be sublimated in favour of holding onto and consolidating power. It had gravitas, verisimilitude and yet was moving as a human story, traversing familiar ground in a fresh dynamic way. In the terms of the new genre, it worked beautifully. Elizabeth: The Golden Age picks up the threads from the savage haircut finale of the first film to show an older queen (Cate Blanchett) with lines on her whited-out face and a bewilderingly large array of ginger wigs at her disposal. Faithful retainer Walsingham (Geofrey Rush) is still on hand and this time the threat of which he warns comes from King Philip II of Spain (Jordi Mollà), a fanatical Catholic who wishes to see the 'bastard' Protestant Elizabeth overthrown and replaced with her cousin, the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton). A chorus of ministerial voices urges Elizabeth to take action against the Catholic community, but she refuses to punish them simply for having a different faith. The vexed question a successor arises, and once again Elizabeth has to bother herself with the tedium of considering a parade of suitors.
These early scenes unfold slowly, amidst lavish period detail, an orgy of splendid production and costume design set in some excellent locations, including four cathedrals. Shots of Elizabeth's court are intercut with similar ones of Spain, where Philip and the Infanta look as though they've just stepped out of a Velasquez painting. Elizabeth's spirits are lifted by handsome, buccaneering Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), who enters court to the boos and hisses of the Spanish contingent, who accuse him of plundering gold from their ships in the New World. Raleigh stands his ground and, inevitably, produces the fruits of his travels - spuds, baccy and a pair of Native Americans. The queen takes to Raleigh and that old erotic spark is re-kindled in some verbal jousting and bracing horse rides. But Elizabeth's favourite lady-in-waiting Beth Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish) is also in Raleigh's sights, so inevitably conflict lies ahead.
Meanwhile Walsingham is hard at work, running his network of spies, uncovering plots and torturing to get the necessary information, but despite his zeal he comes rather unstuck. As the skies darken with superior Spanish military might, Elizabeth instead turns to the stars and the advice of her astrologer, Dr John Dee (David Threlfall). One of the film's best scenes involves Dee accusing Elizabeth of making him tell her what she wants to hear, and he candidly outlines the limits of divination as a method. Finding herself weakened again by unfulfilled womanly needs, Elizabeth comes to gain strength by looking inside herself rather than 'out there'.
So with the Armada sailing up the Channel and defeat almost inevitable, the queen goes forth to rally the troops. The impressiveness of a woman in full shining armour astride a white horse is not lost on Kapur, despite the unlikeliness of it being true, and at this point the film comes to recall Olivier's Henry V and the similar rousing speech made on the eve of battle. This is good, old fashion, tub-thumping, patriotic stuff, re-invented for the CGI generation. In fact, in the same way as Henry V carried a strong propaganda subtext in relation to the then Nazi menace, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, with its overtones of resistance to religion-inspired belligerence, might well be viewed as a rallying call in the current war on terror.
History is history, so it isn't much of a spoiler to say that the English won, and in the Pirates of the Caribbean-like CGI-assisted finale, dashing leading man Raleigh comes back onside to defeat the Spanish almost single-handedly as he leaps nimbly around the rigging, setting fires and demoralizing the enemy in true Jack Sparrow style… even though the real Sir Walter wasn't actually anywhere near the battle. Shots of rosary beads, crucifixes, cannon and horses sinking through fire-illuminated water might perhaps register as overblown, but in the context of what has gone before and accompanied by the rhapsodic, uplifting score they work a treat, scoring a bull's-eye on the jingoistic nerve. The consummating image of a victorious Elizabeth drinking in the spectacle of an Armada burning red against the night sky is again inaccurate, but hey, by this stage who gives a toss?
So yes, Kapur does mess with the facts and edges into melodrama, but he does so in a visually commanding, emotionally satisfying way, finding a level where highbrow and entertainment elements go hand in hand. And central to the film working as it does is the tenor of Cate Blanchett's performance, as once more she immerses herself in this character and convinces us we are seeing the real woman in all her guises, from lordly monarch to the needy, possessive and sometimes jealous human being beneath the crown. She succeeds admirably, as does the ever-reliable Geofrey Rush, who also shows frailty and reveals the limits of the masterful Walsingham. Clive Owen is likeable as ever and the others in a nicely balanced ensemble cast hold the drama up well. Anyone using it as source material to write an essay on, say, Raleigh's role in the Anglo-Spanish War will not score highly but still it remains a good night out at the pictures.