Elizabeth: The Golden Age
What did Sir Francis Drake ever do to Shekhar Kapur?
The English hero explored the New World, circumnavigated the globe, and put his tail on the line for queen and country during the Spanish Armada Crisis of 1588. And when Hollywood gets around to depicting that world-changing event, in Kapur’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age, what happens? They write him out of the script. And not only that. They take his heroics and credit them to the lusty presence of Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen).
So why this slight against one of the giants of English history? The easy answer is brevity, not wanting to confuse the audience with another character, those sorts of things. The longer answer is revealing of the unbridgeable fault in this sequel, with Cate Blanchett reprising the 1998 role that made her a star.
There are two strands to this story of England’s most fascinating monarch – the soapy internal struggles of the unmarried, childless queen, as seen through her flirtation with Owen’s New World explorer; and the Spanish Armada Crisis of 1588, in which her throne, not to mention her neck, were on the line.
The problem is that the queen has a lot to do with the former and not much to do with the latter, aside from consulting astrologers and waking up from sweaty nightmares. Leaders rarely have as much influence on history as cinema or history would like us to think. So you get a Raleigh character, who we’ll call Super Walter Raleigh, to provide a flimsy link between the two stories and give Elizabeth a hand in each.
It doesn’t work. What you have is a lavish biopic that ultimately fails to unite the queen’s sadly enclosed personal life with the historical import of her public duties. You end up with an involving first two-thirds of the film leading to a comical, bombastic battle with the Spanish Armada, filmed with the aesthetics of an NFL commercial under a distracting faux-operatic score. The Golden Age’s attempt to bridge these events ends in abdication.
Unless you count Lord of the Rings, it’s rare to see a sequel to a prestige film. Needless to say, The Golden Age experiences at least one problem of summer fare, namely the “more of the same thing” phenomenon.
Elizabeth is still a randy, somewhat haunted ruler see-sawing between playful and ruthless sides. She’s still facing the threat of Scottish Catholicism, now in the form of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, held in captivity because of her claim to Elizabeth’s throne. English Catholics continue to plot her assassination. Lord Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) still connives and tortures enemies in the name of her majesty’s blessed virginity. And of course there’s the deeply Catholic Spanish king, devastating the forests of Iberia to build a giant fleet to rip Elizabeth from her throne.
With the arrival of Raleigh to the court, Elizabeth becomes intrigued with his stories of exploration, things that she can only dream of behind the walls of her palace. She later becomes royally jealous as Raleigh moves closer to her lady-in-waiting Bess Throckmorton (Abby Cornish), through whom she lives the fantasies of a normal life.
More of the same isn’t a problem when it means Blanchett. Her focus and intensity captures the Virgin Queen – the nostalgia for youth, her need to live through others, her clash between personal desire and duty. These are interesting elements, but the film is far too eager to glorify her character. It too easily grants her pardon for her sins, which are viewed as obstacles to her triumph rather than significant questions of character. If you were Cousin Mary’s neck, you might have a different opinion, and it’s not one that finds much expression here.
Director Shekhar Kapur has a vivid visual imagination, too vivid at times. Sometimes it means we get a beautifully fluid camera movement, such as a circular shot of Raleigh and Throckmorton dancing in front of the queen. Too often, it means Kapur has never found a partially obstructed view that he didn’t like. There’s also a crispness and cleanliness to the fabrics and opulent designs that make it seem like the product of a 21th Century mind. It makes you wonder if the dry cleaner was an Elizabethan invention.
Will there be a third Elizabeth? I’ve seen it discussed. There’s a hint near the end that it will not. I’m not sure the world needs it. Blanchett would certainly be given a queen’s welcome. The rest of it? We’ll wait and see.