Elizabeth: The Golden Age–Disappointing Sequel, Again Starring Blanchett

Overbaked and shallow, “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” is a disappointing sequel of Elizabeth, the 1998 Oscar-nominated film, which was not great either. Whereas Elizabeth covered the early years of the queen’s reign and her rise to power, Golden Age covers her middle years and the limitations of her position.

Using the same kitschy, hysterical, sensualist approach to the second chapter in what promises to be a multi-saga series, Shekar Kapur again proves that he is a superficial stylist.

Main asset of Golden Age, just like that of Elizabeth, is Cate Blanchetts bravado performance in the role that made her an international star, for which she received her first Oscar nomination.

Incidentally, Blanchett is following in the footsteps of the grand Bette Davis, who played Queen Elizabeth I in two pictures, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, in 1939, and in The Virgin Queen, in 1955. (See below).

How will the Academys Acting Branch deal with Blanchett this year Blanchett may well receive two Oscar nominations, a lead for Golden Age, and Supporting Actress for her embodiment of Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes highly acclaimed Im Not There, for which she was awarded the Venice Festival Jury prize.

Word-of-mouth among critics after the Toronto premiere is that Golden Age is a disappointing follow-up, a lesser effort than Elizabeth. But in my view, its only one or two notches below. Having revisited the 1998 picture in preparation for the new one reaffirms my initial conviction that Kapur is a shallow director, lacking strong historical or political perspective on his figures, opting for a narrowly-focused melodrama.

Will Golden Age benefit or suffer from our insatiable obsession with monarchs as celebs, as evident in feature films, TV programs and mini-series. Last year, Helen Mirren won two Golden Globes, two Emmys, and an Oscar for playing Elizabeth I in HBOs telepic Elizabeth, and the current monarch in Stephen Frears Oscar-nominated The Queen.

Kapur’s portrait of the queens earlier years in Elizabeth benefited from the presence of a great actress, Blanchett, though, contrary to popular notion, by 1998, she had already starred in Oscar and Lucinda, opposite Ralph Fiennes, and other films; she wasnt really a new face.

He also benefited from the novelty of his approach and style, and the fact that Elizabeth was (rather inexplicably) nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Actress (but not Director!).

Like the first film, Golden Age is marred by a poor screenplay, credited to William Nicholson and Michael Hirst, who had also written Elizabeth, and anachronistic, often embarrassing dialogue, a recurrent problem of period and costume dramas. Like The Lion in Winter, this Golden Age imposes modernist lingo on the characters, whose conversations sound like street gossip, at once trivial and preposterous.

The films other problem is trying to humanize Elizabeth by stressing her loves, foibles, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. But when you have a brilliant, intelligent, and alert actress like Blanchett, who gives every role a fully-fleshed characterization, you dont need such superfluous staff.

Set in 1585, the story takes place during the 27th year of Elizabeth’s reign, when the Virgin Queen was 52. At 37 (when the film was shot), Blanchett is younger than her part by 15 years; Helen Mirren was closer to her characters age and so was Bette Davis. Watching Blanchett talk and move, you dont get the impression of a bitter, disillusioned monarch, but of a woman still capable of child-bearing and of alluring dashing men like Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen).

The swashbuckling Walter Raleigh brings potatoes, tobacco, and other gifts for the queen. Tempted by Raleigh’s charming way with words and his freedom as explorer, Elizabeth knows she can’t have him. She must deal with her contentious reputation as a virgin queen, with no heir.

Raleigh intrigues Elizabeth with his embellished stories of his adventurous expedition to the New World. Claiming he had named a place like Virginia after Elizabeth, Raleigh requests her support to return to the colonies and establish an English settlement.

Taken with astrology, Elizabeth, the alert monarch, asks her expert (David Threlfall) for more precise information about her fate and the tumultuous events, which come like rapid-fire in this melodrama, sort of a catalogue of presumably momentous, but downright trivial and reductive subplots.

Lacking wit or depth, the plot of Golden Age is silly, conventional, with its simplistic contrasts of loyal Protestants and despicable Catholics, as the embodiment of good and evil, respectively.

Main political events are the Catholic threats presented by Elizabeths cousin Mary Stuart (a brilliant Samantha Morton), who is under house arrest in Scotland, and soon to be beheaded. If its never clear who exactly are the Catholic traitors, backed by Mary and Philip and plotting to murder Elizabeth, its due to their superficial depiction as conventional Hollywood villains.

Another conflict stems from Elizabeths menacing former brother-in-law, King Philip II of Spain (Jordi Molla), who, as depicted here, is obsessed with building the worlds biggest, most forceful Armada in order to successfully invade England.

The only juicy stuff here is in the amorous department, first detailing Elizabeths romantic escapades with Raleigh. We see the two riding together in the country, where they spend quality time.

Aware of her positions limitations, Elizabeth knows that the affair has nowhere to go. And indeed, with Elizabeth as a callous matchmaker, Raleigh begins to court her young, pretty protg Bess (Abbie Cornish). However, when Bess becomes pregnant by Raleigh and gives birth to an illegitimate son, Elizabeth banishes the couple from her sight.

As noted, the dialogue is not only anachronistic but also risible. This Elizabeth is not above saying, “I’m very tired of always being in control,” in reaction to which, Raleigh says: “Nonsense. You breathe and drink control!” “My bitches wear my collars!” Elizabeth screams, when she realizes that Bess is pregnant by Raleigh.

The last thing I want is to defend the dialogue, but put in perspective, previous Hollywood pageantries about Elizabeth, were not witty provocations either. I recommend that you rent The Virgin Queen, in which Bette Davis’s Elizabeth has a high-camp encounter with Bess, played by the young Joan Collins, before she became the gossipy bitch of Dallas. (Note: I’m on the road, but will provide the exact text upon return to L.A.).

Golden Age gets increasingly worse, and last reel is particularly weak. The most engaging moments are in the first reels, which show Elizabeth the royal at work, how she holds court and deals in shrewd yet personal ways with various guests, diplomats, companions, and so forth.

Despite the text’s constrictions, the acting of the well-cast ensemble is good. Possibly trying to recreate the charisma that Errol Flynn had in his Warners costumers, including The Private Lives of Elizabeth of and Essex, Kapur revamps Clive Owen as a steamy stud. With his hair tousled and clad in roguish macho style, Owen’s Raleigh looks good. But also imposes on his some ridiculous bits. Hence, for no apparent reason, other than to show Owens sexy visage, Raleigh takes an underwater swim.

Geoffrey Rush reprises his role from the original as Elizabeth’s closest, worrisome adviser, Sir Francis Walsingham. Scene-stealer Samantha Morton makes the most out of her brief role. Nervously awaiting news of Elizabeth’s assassination, she is devastated when she finds out that her cousin thwarted the assassins and she herself is now under arrest for treason.

Kapur and his writers fail to provide any particular view of Elizabeth as a monarch, or a woman, for that matter. Golden Age isn’t interested in offering any history, bloody or otherwise, resulting in a bubble headed queen stuck inside an empty closet of a narrative.
Though befitting with his overall approach, Kapur opts not show the beheading of the treacherous Mary. And unfortunately, there is no naval showdown between the Brits and the Spanish Armada, as was the norm in Warners period epics of the 1930s and 1940s.

At best, Golden Age offers some guilty pleasures, like watching trash masquerading as art. Saga is presented as a pageantry-fashion parade of glorious gowns, constricting bodices, and red-bewigged headdresses. The costumes are dazzlingly ostentations, and the makeup and hairdos impressive, and there’s nice contrast between the bright costumes and darker colors of the palace.

But artistic design could be faulted for too much reliance on CGI. This may be a function of the budget or lack of skills. If you look closely, you can detect the artificiality of the special effects, which shouldnt matter, if the picture had other major compensations. The endlessly pulsating musical score is just bombastic.

A stylist of the worst kind, Kapur gets high behind the camera, switching arbitrarily from extreme high and low angles that distort the little realism and relaxation his film has. He must have thought that his restlessly swirling camera and excessive floods of light would compensate for the films dramatic flaws.

End Note

“Golden Age” is not opening until October, but there are already talks about a third sequel. “There are endless possibilities with Elizabeth, star Blanchett said in Toronto, There will be a lot more Elizabeth films, because she’s endlessly fascinating.
According to Kapur, The first film was about power and love, betrayal and survival, separation and disengaging, in the context of power. Golden Age is more about absolute power, and being divine, and what that means. The third movie would be about, if you become a model in your life, how would you face mortality. When at the top, you know you are going to die, and you become ordinary by dying, because everybody dies.”

I leave it up to you, dear readers, to decide whether youre looking forward to the third chapter.

Cast

Queen Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett)
Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush)
Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen)
Robert Reston (Rhys Ifans)
King Philip II of Spain (Jordi Molla)
Bess Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish)
Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton)
Sir Amyas Paulet (Tom Hollander)
Spanish Archbishop (Antony Carrick)
Dr. John Dee (David Threlfall)
Thomas Babington (Eddie Redmayne)
Lord Howard (John Shrapnel)
Sir Christopher Hatton (Laurence Fox)
Calley (Adrian Scarborough)
Francis Throckmorton (Steven Robertson)

Credits

A Universal release presented in association with Studio Canal and MP Zeta of a Working Title production. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Jonathan Cavendish. Executive producers: Debra Hayward, Liza Chasin, Michael Hirst.
Co-producer: Mary Richards.
Directed by Shekhar Kapur.
Screenplay, William Nicholson, Michael Hirst.
Camera: Remi Adefarasin.
Editor: Jill Bilcock.
Music: Craig Armstrong, Ar Rahman.
Music supervisor: Nick Angel.
Production designer: Guy Hendrix Dyas.
Supervising art director: Frank Walsh.
Set decorator: Richard Roberts.
Costume designer: Alexandra Byrne.
Sound: David Stephenson.
Supervising sound editor: Mark Auguste.
Visual effects supervisor: Richard Stammers.
Makeup and hair designer: Jenny Shircore.

MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 113 Minutes.