The Reeler


October 12, 2007

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Protestants rule and Catholics predictably drool, but Elizabeth redux is as ideologically confused as it is completely meaningless

Director Shekhar Kapur had a measure of success with Elizabeth, his 1998 film of the famous monarch’s early years, which also launched Cate Blanchett as a leading lady. After that came 2002’s The Four Feathers, a huge disappointment and Wes Bentley vehicle (I don’t doubt that the two are related), and another four year silence now being broken with Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Did the decision to return to what on paper would be a sure thing (Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush were also convinced to reprise their roles) mean that Kapur had merely run out of ideas, or could he possibly have something new to bring to this much-mined period of Elizabeth’s life (brought to bear most recently in 2005 by HBO and Helen Mirren)? Well, fish out your nappy red corkscrew wigs, suit up and read on.

Protestants rule, Catholics drool in this absurdly overheated dish of anglophilia by a director whose very name indicates that he might know better. That’s not to say that The Golden Age is in any but the barest sense an accurate portrayal of English history circa 1585, but it brings to Elizabeth I, the betrayal of Mary Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) and the defeat of King Philip’s Spanish Armada the distinct patina of divine righteousness and retribution, complete with white horses and drowning crucifixes. If it’s a holy war then Blanchett is framed as Medieval Madonna Barbie, more iconic than the actual Virgin Mother icons painted on the sides of the Spanish ships: Dress her up, dress her down -- she’s got a look for every occasion -- just don’t peek between her legs because there ain’t nothing to see.

Along the way and despite this apparent anatomical incorrectness, more fun is had with the relationship between Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh, whom Clive Owen plays as a sort of rapturous pirate, one more suitor to add to the pile constantly being set at the Virgin Queen’s feet. Elizabeth greets this parade of dudes with barely contained patience and wiseacre asides, made mostly for the benefit of her favorite lady-in-waiting, Bess (Abbie Cornish). Tweaked by Raleigh’s cerulean gaze and gifts from the New World of tabacco, potatoes and a couple of Indians (“Make sure they are treated well,” Blanchett instructs with casual gravitas, causing my companion to actually snort with derision), she sends Bess to do some legwork, which quickly turns into some arm and neck and lip-work.

Kapur veers wildly in tone from wry to overwrought, staid compositions to scattershot editing and the from-the-rafters crane shots he seems overly fond of. Compared to a film like The Scarlett Empress, Von Sternberg’s truly bizarre portrait of Catherine the Great, in which Marlene Dietrich is similarly visually and thematically fetishized as the Queen and the film’s various quirks are leveraged in favor of the narrative instead of against it, The Golden Age seems like a badly botched opportunity. Morton is woozy and syncopated in her brief turn as the traitorous Mary Stuart, and Rush has little to do but stomp and glower, which he must also do in competition with Blanchett’s twisting and fretting, in a constant (if understandable) high dudgeon of frustration.

The Golden Age luxuriates obscenely in its dramatic moments (Mary’s beheading borders on campy melodrama) and fizzles the ultimate battle scene with risible effects, downright goofy shots of a suddenly swashbuckling Owen, and a chugging, discombobulating score that seems straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean. The final images of Elizabeth on the shore, lit up from below, behind and within with the wrath and beatitude of some exalted deity as the Armada burns at sea, are as visually overblown as they are ideologically confused, as insistent on emotional grandiosity as they are completely meaningless.

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