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elizabeth the golden age
The Golden Age
Directed by:
Shekhar Kapur
Cast: Jordi Molla, Amiee King, Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush

Written by:
Joanne Ross

October 17, 2007

Like the famed Spanish Armada which sunk under the combined weight of Philip II’s arrogance and monumental hubris, so, too, does the film, Elizabeth – The Golden Age, director Shekhar Kapur’s follow-up to his 1998 film, Elizabeth. Unlike his first film, which focused on the events and intrigues surrounding Elizabeth I’s ascension to the throne of England in 1558, The Golden Age takes in a lot more territory plot wise, and is nowhere near as satisfying, moving, or artistically successful as its predecessor.


Right off the bat, I want to say that I had misgivings prior to seeing this movie. When I first read the tagline for this film, I got scared.  The tagline reads: “Woman. Warrior. Queen.” These words told me that Kapur, and probably screen writers William Nicholson and Michael Hirst as well, see Queen Elizabeth not so much as a flesh and blood woman and historical figure, but as archetypes. She is Woman. She is Warrior. She is Queen. It occurred to me that they might attempt to mythologize her and make her larger than life.  And, in fact, that is exactly what happened, to the detriment of the film and Queen Elizabeth I herself. Their approach is the mainspring of the problems with this film. Kapur’s obvious admiration for Queen Elizabeth affected every choice from the screenplay, the set design, costume design, even the acting which was over-the-top at times. Every aspect of the film had to be amped up for dramatic effect to support a queen of “mythological” proportions.

Look at the plot. It’s 1588. Queen Elizabeth (the extraordinary Cate Blanchett) is beset by problems all around. In fact, she isn’t just having problems, she is having a LOT of problems, all of them converging quite conveniently at a real moment of crisis in her reign—the invasion of the Spanish Armada.  On the political front she continues to entertain suitors she clearly has no intention of marrying, just to placate her advisors who urge her to marry to ensure the succession.  The Spanish Ambassador is protesting about the continued piracy of Spanish ships—by English pirates, one of whom is none other than Walter Raleigh. Her cousin, Mary Queen of Scotts (played by the radiant and quietly dignified Samantha Morton), has been stewing in prison for 18 years and is now hatching a plot with King Philip II of Spain (Jordi Mollà) to assassinate her and take the throne of England. On the personal front, Elizabeth is facing a mid-life crisis.  Older now, she begins to feel her mortality and we see her, in brief moments, sad, vulnerable, uncertain, and reminiscing about past love, youth, and innocence lost.  And finally, when she least expects it, she falls in love with the explorer/pirate Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), who comes to court seeking her favor and patronage, and secretly romances and marries the Queen’s favorite lady in waiting, Elizabeth Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish).

This is a lot of area to cover. Kapur chose to heighten dramatic reality by cramming as many dangers and plotlines into the story as he could. In turns out, unfortunately, to be too much and the film suffers as a whole because the focus is so broad and spread out over these different plotlines and many supporting details that the result, for me, is a movie that lacks sustained energy, is flat and curiously distant.

Not surprisingly, Kapur and screenwriters Nicholson and Hirst didn’t let little things like historical fact get in the way of their story, either. While is it true that Philip II was sympathetic to the plight of Mary Queen of Scots, he was not conspiring with her to murder Elizabeth. And while Queen Mary was indeed involved in a plot against the queen (the Babington Plot), it is widely accepted that she was innocent as she had never consented to the assassination. Elizabeth at this time was 55 years of age. Someone forgot to mention that fact to the makeup artists, because Cate Blanchett looks just as lovely and fresh today as she did in the first film, ten years ago. With regard to Walter Raleigh, there is no historical evidence that Elizabeth was ever romantically interested or otherwise involved with Walter Raleigh. Nor was he part of the English fleet that sailed against the Armada.

Like the plot, the film’s visuals were bloated as well. To be fair, the costumes and set designs are sumptuous. Yet despite their undoubted beauty, they are very distracting.

As England prepares for the invasion, Elizabeth joins her troops on land wearing a brilliant suit of armor. Sitting on her horse, with her long read hair flowing down her back, she is vibrant and exciting to behold, the quintessential Amazon ready to do battle. Moments later, while the English fleet engages the Armada, Elizabeth stands on the edge of the cliff, watching the battle unfold.  Pure visual poetry, true, and yet, both images tended to mythologize her—again, an archetype instead of a person.  For me, the real flesh and blood woman, Elizabeth I, was buried under the romanticized exteriors.

Also distracting, and heavy-handed in the extreme, was the visual symbolism used for the scenes of defeat of the armada. The ghoulish-looking Philip II (Jordi Mollà) stands in a room in his palace. The window is open and he is staring at a lighted candle and muttering to himself, over and over again, “I am the light, Elizabeth is the Dark . . .” As the Armada is overcome by the English fire ships, the candle light flickers and then dies.

In a life as eventful, precarious, and inherently dramatic as that of Queen Elizabeth I what need is there for use of excessive dramatic embellishment in telling her story? It is unfortunate that Shekhar Kapur could not trust in the power and beauty inherent in the historical facts and realities of Elizabeth’s life to be sufficient for telling her story. The “real” Elizabeth—and the “real” facts-- is far more fascinating and worth watching than an idealized version. And, I think far more satisfying.


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