Elizabeth: The Golden Age
by Del Harvey
“…chances will be taken.”
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The first film, simply titled Elizabeth, came out in 1998. It also starred Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth and Geoffrey Rush as Sir Francis Walsingham, and it was directed by Shekhar Kapur. All three of these individuals reprised their roles in front of and behind the camera for Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Michael Hirst wrote the first film, and was joined by another screenwriter for the current film, William Nicholson. Mr. Nicholson’s other claims to fame have been Gladiator, First Knight, Nell, and Shadowlands. The first film brought critical acclaim to a then-unknown actress who has come to be well-known and loved worldwide for her fine, quality performances in a variety of works. It is plain to see why a return to such an auspicious beginning would be warranted, but the result is—sadly—somewhat less than what could have been.
As the new film opens the European world of the 16th century is experiencing a series of disconcerting wave of religious and political tides. Elizabeth, the “virgin” Queen, finds her rule openly challenged by Spanish King Philip II, whose with powerful army and sea-dominating armada threaten to restore England to Catholicism. Preparing to go to war to defend her empire, Elizabeth struggles to balance ancient royal duties with the unexpected vulnerability discovered through her love for Sir Walter Raleigh. But Raleigh remains forbidden for a queen who has sworn body and soul to her country. Unable and unwilling to pursue her love, Elizabeth encourages her favorite lady-in-waiting, Bess, to befriend Raleigh to keep him near. But this strategy forces Elizabeth to observe their growing intimacy. As she charts her course abroad, her trusted advisor, Sir Francis Walsingham, continues his masterful puppetry of Elizabeth’s court at home—and her campaign to solidify absolute power. Through an intricate spy network, Walsingham uncovers an assassination plot that could topple the throne. But as he unmasks traitors that may include Elizabeth’s own cousin Mary Stuart, he unknowingly sets England up for destruction.
The film takes certain liberties with history, it is true. And we are treated to the visual opulence of a variety of stunning gowns for her highness to wear. But, in all fairness, the first is simply a matter of dramatic license, which any film would and does undertake when confronted with adapting real life, or even a novel, to the screen. The second is intended to express the passage of time. If either of these endeavors fail, then it is the fault of either the screenwriter or the director; and in this case it is probably the fault of both. The full scope of Elizabeth: The Golden Age is presented in the garment of sweeping historical epic. This type of treatment suggests that chances will be taken with standard elements such as plot and cinematic presentation. Director Kapur and writers Hirst and Nicholson spare no time in taking these liberties in an attempt to present their story. Whether or not they proceeded with full knowledge of that other, Emmy-winning 2005 entry starring Helen Mirren is irrelevant; the fact that they proceeded as closely upon the heels of that other film is the wonder. Even though the film was presented on cable television, and should not be seen as a competitor. The decision to greenlight the film and pursue it within the context of romantic epic is the amazing thing.
Unfortunately, that is precisely where the problems with the film originate. While the first two-thirds of the film contain enough political intrigue that the audience will ignore any slight historical missteps, the final third, when Philip’s armada is approaching the English shore, takes us into true Harlequin romance territory, and we are force-fed a cinematic version of Sir Walter Raleigh guiding an unmanned ship into the Spanish Armada before it gets anywhere near the English Channel. History shows that it was Sir Francis Drake whose nautical skills helped turn the tide against the Spanish; Raleigh paid debts owed to the Queen by commissioning an 800 pound warship, The Ark Royal, to help defend England against the Armada. The Armada made considerable entry up the English Channel before being turned away by the English navy with great assistance from guns on shore. The images shown in the film are much more romantic and, unfortunately, detract greatly from an otherwise highly enjoyable film.
Ms. Blanchett, Clive Owen, and Geoffrey Rush all turn in very strong performances. Samantha Morton, Abbie Cornish, and Rhys Ifans, in supporting roles, are also excellent to watch. But Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a weak follow-up to a wonderful film. At best, consider this one a video rental.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a screenwriter and filmmaker, and currently teaches film at Columbia College Chicago.
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