ELIZABETH, THE GOLDEN AGE is as ambitious and as opulent as its predecessor, ELIZABETH. Both starring Cate Blanchett in the title role, both directed with panache by Shekhar Kapur, the former was a triumph in depicting the private Elizabeth subsuming her personal desires in order to become a national icon. The latter is a muddle that subsumes that premise in a mighty attempt to be several things all at once, with an uneven delivery. And this is odd considering that the period in question offered three of Elizabeth’s greatest challenges: the threat of invasion by the Spanish Armada, the threat of usurpation by the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton wondrously high-strung), and the carnal temptations of the dashing Walter Raleigh.
The dynamics of the seething juxtaposition of Elizabeth struggling to give up her personhood in order to be a ruler, to leave behind her lover, to prove herself equal to the task of governing and, even more, the task of negotiating the political intrigues, is absent here. Elizabeth is at the height of her powers, and, apparently, that leaves the story with only one direction in which to go.
The best part of the script plays on the eerie similarities in the religio-political temper of Elizabeth’s time and the ones at play in the present. Elizabeth is facing a religious threat from outside her borders in the form of Philip of Spain, a religious fanatic of the Catholic variety, who has appointed himself God’s representative tasked with removing from the face of the earth the scourge of the Reformation in general, and Elizabeth of England in particular. Real plots swirl around the queen and her court, paranoia is rampant among her ministers and her people, with both calling for extreme measures to insure the safety of the monarch and her country from the Catholic threat from both Philip and Mary, Elizabeth’s cousin and wiling rallying point for those at home and abroad who contemplate regime change. There is much that can be read into that and it is obviously the filmmaker’s intent for the audience to do so. But what to make of the successful uses of torture to elicit information as depicted therein? And the equally successful use of covert surveillance by Elizabeth’s ruthlessly loyal minister, Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush reprising his role, though less demonically) in catching the captive Queen of Scots in a web of her own intrigue? What might have been an insightful look, seen from the safe remove of historical events, at the difficulties of governing during a time of heightened fears from within and without, breaks down with an overly ambitions attempt to cover more ground that can be gracefully accommodated in its two-hour or so running time. The result is scattershot, truncated, and disturbingly proto-fascist, despite Elizabeth’s declaration that she will only punish her subjects for actual crimes, not beliefs.
The lowest point of the film is a badly conceived pseudo-romance involving the adventurer Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), just returned from founding the colony of Virginia, so named for Elizabeth’s official physical condition. Owen is more than credible in the swashbuckling role, brash and charismatic, a breath of distinctly masculine fresh air in the court that is rife with courtiers careful in both dress and manners. He even works up a nice chemistry with Blanchett, as well as the other Elizabeth (Abbie Cornish) of the piece, the Queen’s favorite lady-in-waiting who falls for the dashing seafarer just as hard as her sovereign, but with far less self-control. It all congeals into a syrupy romantic triangle that fits neither the tone of the film, nor that of the title character. It is the stuff of lesser historical romances.
Blanchett carries what is best on her slim but sturdy shoulders by the sheer force of her personality. With a larger than life persona outshining even the calculated theatricality of the royal costumes, she effortlessly conflates the dual nature of Elizabeth’s personal and private lives, the keen intellect, the touchy egotism, and the achingly human vulnerability that manifests in the acute jealously and peculiar pride she feels in having forsaken husband and children.
ELIZABETH – THE GOLDEN AGE lacks the same spark and intensity that drove the original. Though this film boasts the same director, Kapur, lead actress, Blanchett, and the original writer, Michael Hirst, who this time shares the writing credit with William Nicholson, they have not created an enduring work of cinema. Instead they have produced an object lesson in the elusive alchemy that is creating great art.