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Oh, those Royals … Dunno if I’ve ever said, dolls, but your friendly neighbourhood Divinity is quite taken with the history of those wacky Tudors. From that outrageous serial widower, Henry VIII, right on through to his nutty offspring, ol’ MG can’t get enough of reading tales of their glories and defeats. Every Masterpiece Theatre production, every biography, even the pulpiest historical novel, I’ll eat it all when it comes to the Tudors. 

In 1998, when Director Shekhar Kapur first gave us the initial chapter in the life of Henry’s middle child, Elizabeth, I was captivated. He managed to capture the opulence of the age and keep his eye firmly set on the trials of a young woman reaching a height of power that no English woman alone had ever achieved. Kapur’s production revealed the inner workings of this young queen of a nation nearly bankrupted, fraught by enemies on all sides, coping with her own personal struggles of betrayal - political and emotional -  and the threat of assassination around every corner. Besides being one of my favourite films about the Tudor Dynasty, Elizabeth is probably best known for having shot Cate Blanchett’s star in the stratosphere. Her Oscar-winning performance as the young Elizabeth gave us an insight to the ruler that the portraits we’ve seen of her, white masked and sour faced, never could. Cate showed us a woman in the rush of first love, who overcomes heartache and deception; a young lady of flesh and blood, fighting self-doubt, being underestimated by all around her and living in terror for her life and for the costs her inexperience weighs on her people. Watching her find her feet and become stronger amidst scheming, backstabbing courtiers who would dearly love to see her pretty head on a pike, was a tremendous joy.  

Flash forward some 30 years and all is still not well on the shores of Old Blighty. Despite the decades of harangues from her advisors, Her Majesty has continued her game of hard to get, leaving her throne unsecured and her life without a husband or heir in imminent peril. The country is still wanting for finances and is hobbled for war with a depleted military force, and it’s at this juncture that King Philip II of Spain, feeling the oats of his mighty naval force and having guided the Inquisition, decides to depose the heretic Elizabeth and claim England for the Catholics.  

Into this fray of unsurety sails one bright light in the form of privateer and all around dashing fella, Walter Raleigh. Burly and plain spoken, Raleigh manages to cut a swath directly into the heart of the queen who is tired of all the flattery and double dealing around her. Raleigh just wants the queen’s blessings to further explore the New World, but his charms and tales of far-off places captivate the queen and she procrastinates at giving him a commission. Unable to pursue a romance with him (- commoner, y’see), Elizabeth masochistically pimps out her lady-in-waiting, Bess Throckmorton, to keep Raleigh at arm’s length and then loses her mind when, lo and behold, the two actually fall in love.  

I guess it’s to be expected she’d need to blow off a little steam with all the above going on and a usurper to your title in the form of royal cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, just to the north of you. Elizabeth’s network of spies, still headed by her all-knowing advisor Sir Frances Walsingham, has uncovered the imprisoned Mary’s involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate Elizabeth and put Mary, the nearest claimant of Tudor blood, on the throne. How much of the evidence is factual and how much is Walsingham’s clever artifice is a contention for Elizabeth, as well as the perilous notion of killing her cousin who like her is “a God-Anointed Queen”. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, indeed.  

Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a beautiful, sumptuous affair. The success of the previous chapter can be seen in the sequel’s wonderful production values. The costumes which were already Oscar-worthy are astounding with no expense spared for the bolts of velvets and jewels on the persons of the queen and her court. The scenes of the various palaces in England, Spain, and Fotheringhay Castle where Mary Scots is imprisoned lack for no small detail.  

In the first film, we watched the story of a young queen begin to come into her powers and in parallel, we also watched the first steps of an actress called Cate Blanchett as she faced her first crossover lead role. As with England’s queen you left the cinema knowing that great things were ahead for this actress and now, 8 years since the first film, Cate has seized her power as one of the finest actors in the world. This time her Elizabeth shrinks from nothing. She is grand and fierce and brooks no insolence from those who would doubt her, even while doubting herself. Elizabeth is a grown woman; wry, witty, and in control of her sexuality, if not her marital destiny. The scenes between Cate Blanchett and Clive Owen as the rough, earthy Raleigh crackle with electricity as the two generate much more heat in their sparring repartees than any of the sex scenes between Raleigh and the pale, over-youthful Throckmorton, and that’s what we call a mixed blessing. While I understood that Raleigh and Elizabeth couldn’t be together it’s almost problematic that you have two actors that share such chemistry, the alternative of Raleigh’s choosing the lady-in-waiting seems almost unbelievable. Elizabeth’s sublimating the relationship with Raleigh into that of a trusted friendship is hardly satisfying. Unlike the previous film, we don’t have the grand betrayal of a false lover to crow over and it makes Elizabeth seem almost pathetic.  

Sadly, this ill-wrought romantic measure is the one of most interest in the film. The lack of interaction between any other strong characters, notably the lessened role of Geoffrey Rush, as the ninja-like Walsingham, now aged and failing, also takes from the drama. The closest bravura performances we get besides Blanchett as Elizabeth is Morton as Mary Queen of Scots who does wonders with a role that mostly requires her to fret and look dignified. However with Mary, you know how that story ends before it begins and outside of the Babington Plot there’s precious little Walsingham this time to set up nets to trap those who would do Elizabeth harm. A subplot involving Bess Throckmorton’s mutinous relatives is a blank, mostly because there’s no depth to her character at all. She’s a very pretty meringue and nothing more, which again makes the great passion Raleigh has for her this side of unbelievable.  

The big set piece for this film is the great war between the depleted British Navy and the Spanish Armada and it is a technical feat. Shakhar Kapur brings us right onboard the decks of the ships as they battle for supremacy, tossed by the turbulence of the English seas. Even so, the battle and the big speech Elizabeth delivers to her troops right before it, isn’t the great rousing moment that the film desperately needs to bring it to life. For all the glorious pomp and circumstance, Elizabeth the Golden Age is a fairly flat affair. The first film had the angle of human interest as Elizabeth, not yet a powerful queen, but a young woman trying to find her way in a dangerous, overwhelmingly male-dominated world. You had a taut balance of her story, her romances, and the perils of what might befall her. In the sequel there is a warmed-over feeling that we’ve seen much of this before, only it was more gripping the first time. The we’ve seen this before feeling doesn’t restrict itself to referencing the first film either; her speech to her troops at Tilbury right before the invasion of the Armada reads as a pale version of the Braveheart speech, only instead of blue paint, our leader sits astride a fine, white charger, sporting shining, silver armour and a long, red Boudicca wig. The hollow ring of the proceedings isn’t helped by the comic book silliness of The Golden Age’s big bad, King Philip II of Spain. With his limp and mewling lisp, he’s a single-minded dead ringer for Snidely Whiplash. Also, despite the fact that Spain is blessed with sunny climes, every scene there is inexplicably drenched in murky sepia, either under an overcast sky, or in a castle that’s run short of candles. Clearly, they weren’t big on interior light in 1500’s Spain.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age has a lot to live up to when weighed against the great success of its predecessor. It certainly has enough stunning visuals to gawp at, and the moments between Clive Owen and Cate Blanchett are a treat. Unfortunately, outside of those aspects and the powerhouse of Blanchett’s performance - she really seems to be enjoying Elizabeth a lot more this time around - the rest of the cake is pretty flat. The Golden Age doesn’t hold up as strongly when judged on its own, but as a transitional chapter in the story of the monarch, it’ll do. 

 

~ Mighty Ganesha

Oct 11th 2007

 

 

 

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