Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Dir. Shekhar Kapur
Premiered at Toronto September 9, 2007
Confession time: while no critic can appraise a film in a truly unbiased fashion, Elizabeth: The Golden Age is exceptionally difficult for me, not because of any disagreement with the film’s portrayal of history– though that’s also in there– but mainly because I’m just fucking tired of its subject.
Elizabeth I is probably the most frequently depicted English monarch in all of film and television, at least outside the UK. This obsession seems to have peaked between the late 1990s and mid-2000s, during which she was portrayed by Judi Dench, Imogen Slaughter, Tamara Hope, Margot Kidder, Lorna Lacey, Catherine McCormack, Anne-Marie Duff, Helen Mirren, Angela Pleasance, and of course Cate Blanchett, who became a household name on the strength of her performance in 1998’s Elizabeth, to which The Golden Age is a direct sequel.
Together, the two films effectively bookend this period of Elizabeth-mania, and while I didn’t absolutely despise Elizabeth, it was hard to watch for how little it varied from other media that came after. Every one of these films and shows wants to be the definitive portrait of the monarch, and accordingly they not only cover the same events, but do so with largely the same perspective: there’s always the vaguely feminist theme of a strong woman needing to prove herself in a man’s world, the boilerplate political intrigue, the starry-eyed romanticism of taking on Spain and dreaming of a future British Empire, and of course the evergreen speculation that the Virgin Queen was nothing of the sort.
On top of that, Elizabeth is a bad film anyway. There’s a good case to be made for taking liberties in service of a larger theme or purpose, but here the inaccuracies outnumber the facts, what few truths appear unadulterated butt in and are quickly whisked away like unwanted guests, and the lot of it is presented with the most sensationalistic of ‘90s cheese. Mind you, the direction and acting are fine if somewhat perfunctory, but there’s no escape from a bad script, and The Golden Age happily doubles down.
Released four years after the conclusion of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Golden Age attempts to capture the same fantastical uplift as those films, but lacks the budget ($55 million), adequate runtime (114 minutes), or sense of direction to make it so. The majority of the film attempts to juggle Elizabeth’s potential interest in explorer/pirate Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) and his subsequent betrayal with one of her handmaidens (Abbie Cornish) with a continuation of the foreign machinations depicted in the first: the Spanish crown sponsors an assassination attempt against Elizabeth (featuring Eddie Redmayne as the gunman), and Queenie’s trusted advisor Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) implicates the legandary Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) as a co-conspirator.
Call me unsentimental, but while I found neither plot to be compelling in the form presented, I must say that the latter had far more potential. Alas, the filmmakers went for maximum bodice-ripping while reducing the meatier cloak-and-dagger business to mere bullet points, despite it being the main driver of the film.
After Mary is executed, the Spanish Armada is sent to conquer England, and history goes completely out the window. The Spanish and English ships race through a storm– the real battle was under mostly clear skies. Elizabeth forgives Walter Raleigh so he can save the day at sea– the real leaders, Drake and Howard, are relegated to minor roles, as is Elizabeth’s court philosopher John Dee. The battle is a massive slaughter with the whole Spanish Armada sinking in flames– most of the ships ran aground in Belgium or had to go all the way around the British Isles to return to Spain.
If the governing philosophy behind Elizabeth: The Golden Age could be reduced to a single scene, it would be the prelude to battle in which Elizabeth herself rides out in full plate armor on a white horse, pledging to fight to the last as a common soldier should the time come. This climactic humiliation is mercifully elevated to so-bad-it’s-good status when the horse keeps walking in circles, forcing Cate Blanchett to constantly reorient herself in an losing battle to maintain her composure.
How Did It Do?
Elizabeth: The Golden Age grossed $74.2 million, too little to recoup its marketing budget and less than the original Elizabeth, even accounting for inflation. Although it managed an obligatory Oscar for Best Costume Design (and a nomination for Blanchett), critics were much harder on the picture than its predecessor, lambasting its soap operatics, loose history, and strangely vacillating characterization of the Queen herself (though that’s true of almost everyone portrayed).
If Elizabeth failed in all the same ways The Golden Age did, why is the former better remembered? Probably because the first came about in an era of greater tolerance for cheesy melodrama, and probably because it kicked off the Elizabeth craze, whereas The Golden Age heralded its merciful death.
Now it’s her father Henry VIII who’s getting run into the ground.
Next Time: Honeydripper