Elizabeth: The Golden Age
directed by Shekhar Kapur
(Universal, 2007)

It's 1585, as measured by the newly named Gregorian calendar. Spain is the most powerful empire on the face of the Earth and its king, Philip II, has decided to use that might to wage holy war against England.

Meanwhile, England is both too broke and too busy fighting itself to pay all that much attention to Spain. There's the Papists vs. the anti-Papists, of course, the family feud still lingering from King Henry VIII's much-contested divorce from the Catholic church. And then there's all that nastiness about Elizabeth being a virgin queen: a monarch who either can't -- or won't -- produce an heir to the throne.

All this is complicated by the fact that the Anglican Elizabeth has her older cousin, Mary Stuart, a Catholic, locked up in faraway -- but not faraway enough -- Scotland.

And so begins Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Cate Blanchett's latest romp into Oscar territory. Blanchett, who in 1999 was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for Elizabeth, is even more convincing here, in part because director Shekhar Kapur allows her to look almost as homely as the real Elizabeth I -- no mean feat, given Blanchett's natural gifts.

But there's more to movies than looks, and Kapur (Four Feathers, Elizabeth), with the aid of cinematographer Remi Adefarasin (Band of Brothers) and writers William Nicholson (Gladiator) and Michael Hirst (The Tudors), gives both Blanchett and Elizabeth all they need to succeed.

First there's Adefarasin's candlelit England, which leaves lots of room for shadows. That's important, because as anyone who's studied Elizabethan history knows, there was a Papist standing in every one of them. And that definitely adds to the suspense, especially when Mary Stuart sends her assassins out looking for Elizabeth.

Then there's the cast of supporting actors gathered to give Blanchett as the world's most wigged-out queen (you can see the wigs in the backgrounds to several of the scenes) all the sounding boards she needs to deliver her crisp and at times scathing dialogue.

Chief among them, of course, is Geoffrey Rush (Shine, Pirates of the Caribbean) as Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's closest male adviser, for most of the film anyway. Whether he's playing a tormented pianist or a tormenting pirate, it's hard not to love and admire Rush.

Just as good in her own way is Abbie Cornish (Candy, A Good Year) as Bess Throckmorton, Queen Elizabeth's most trusted -- at least for a time -- lady in waiting. And to a lesser degree, there's Clive Owen (every English character ever created), as soon-to-become Sir Walter Raleigh, New World entrepreneur and faithful -- at least in the early going -- servant to the queen.

But what makes this interesting cast of characters work -- at least in the early going -- is the script. Nicholson and Hirst do a great job of introducing the queen, laying out the tenuous situation she's in and bringing together the characters that will ultimately complicate her course of action and bring it to its logical conclusions. (No spoiler alert needed: Anyone who stayed awake in history class knows how this one came out.)

Especially engaging is the dialogue, which lets us know early on which characters are worth listening to and which ones should be pushed behind the curtains and left there. The most notable early lines belong to the two Elizabeths.

"I have a secret, dear," the queen tells Archduke Charles of Austria, a much-too-young-suitor who looks as uncomfortable as Elizabeth looks knowing. "I pretend there's a pane of glass between me and them. They can see me, but they cannot touch me. You should try it."

Bess is no slouch either, especially when she's advising Raleigh how to gain Elizabeth's favor: "All men flatter the queen in hope of advancement. Pay her the compliment of truth." Lines like these make Golden Age fiercely interpersonal in a way few historical dramas are.

Add to this the outfits, which have earned the film an Oscar nomination for costume design (Alexandra Byrne), and you have a very pretty picture with much to say.

Sadly, however, it does not end there. Somewhere along the way, just about the time Philip sends his fleet toward England, Shekhar lets his film slip out of the personal and into action-film mode. And Michael Curtiz he's not.

Golden Age sinks into a series of slow-motion battle shots in which we know few of the characters and care even less. Worse, he begins cutting away to visual cliches, like one of Elizabeth, dressed in battle armor, standing on a cliff, all Jane-Eyre-like by herself, watching the Spanish Armada burn.

Worse yet, the once-sparkling dialogue sinks to the level of Raleigh's advice to the queen: "Why be afraid of tomorrow when today is all we have."

If there were an Oscar for best first half of a film, Elizabeth: The Golden Age would no doubt win it hands-down. As it is, by trying to give us more, Shekhar ends up giving us less. More's the pity.

review by
Miles O'Dometer

8 November 2008

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