Director: Shekhar Kapur
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Clive Owen
Runtime: 114 mins
Elizabeth: The Golden Age marks Shekhar Kapur’s second foray into the life of Elizabeth I, and Cate Blanchett’s second shot at portraying the monarch. The glut of historical inaccuracy in the film is enough to fill an entire review, but to go into this in detail seems to miss the point. Somewhere in cinema, as we watched Jon Bon Jovi cracking the enigma code in U571 and Ben Affleck sticking it to the Japanese in Pearl Harbour, historical accuracy bit the dust.
Sure, there’s no evidence to suggest an affair between Elizabeth and Walter Raleigh. No, Raleigh didn’t single handedly defeat the Spanish Armada. But we know that, and this isn’t the classroom, it’s the cinema. History has always been a rich and richly plagiarised source for the arts. Richard III, for example, is a hunchbacked, child murdering sociopath, and no amount of historical evidence otherwise will change one iotoa of Shakespeare’s vision, or my mind. Historical productions comment on the time they’re performed in, not the time they’re set in.
So, to Elizabeth: The Golden Age, where we find Europe on the brink of holy war, with only brave little England standing firm. The Spanish are destroying forests for their own selfish means, prisoners are tortured for their religious beliefs, and successful women get angsty about wrinkles and romance. And if that doesn’t seem heavy-handed, wait until you hear the script. As attractive as Clive Owen (Raleigh) is, it is almost impossible to recover from his clichéd and faintly embarrassing dialogue about the New World, the promised land of Virginia, a consolation to the American audiences less interested in England’s heritage than the formation and expansion of their own ‘empire’.
Blanchett’s performance is, unsurprisingly, brilliant and serves to extend her cachet as possibly the greatest actress of her generation; name anyone else who could play both Elizabeth I and Bob Dylan. Samantha Morton is impressive as Mary Queen of Scots and her execution is one of the most engaging and effective set-pieces of the film. Geoffrey Rush is strong as Elizabeth’s close advisor and friend Francis Walsingham, though once the Armada comes charging across the channel it’s hard not to wish he’d don his pirate gear and let Captain Barbossa show them a thing or two.
Elizabeth herself presents us with modern woman’s obsession, the ‘choice’ between career success and romantic fulfillment. Kapur’s film comes up with a surprising conclusion in modern Hollywood’s climate – that Elizabeth is actually happier sacrificing her love for Raleigh for her duty to her people, that her responsibilities to the country and relationships in court are enough to satisfy her. This is a positive decision on the filmmaker’s part; as Elizabeth has no choice in the matter, the ending would come closer to the tragic than the triumphant otherwise. Overall, however, there is all this and more in the first film, and this sequel does little to extend or improve what has already been achieved in the portrayal of this most intriguing of monarchs.