Elizabeth: The Golden Age
It remains to be seen whether audiences who enjoyed Indian director Shekhar Kapur’s 1998, seven-time Academy Award-nominated Elizabeth will take to the sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age. The first film, a Western period drama filtered though Eastern sensibilities, was lavish yet restrained—spartan, and staged with almost theatrical minimalism. And while there are elements of that film here, the sequel’s excesses are so hyper-exaggerated as to disconcert even the most ardent fan of the original.
This follow-up takes place roughly ten years after the events in the first film. Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett, returning to the role that made her a star) is no longer a girl wrestling with the magnitude of becoming a monarch. She has settled into her role as Queen with confidence, assuredness and not a little sprightly sass. Elizabeth is a master of deftly stage-managing her appearance. The public Queen and the private Queen are often irreconcilable. One is nearly divine, the ephemeral wisp of an icon net yet solidified. The other is wholly human, within whose breast beats a heart of passion and yearning. She is all-powerful, yet she must plow out her own desires for the higher ideal of her people’s welfare — the thoroughly modern woman who has it all but only at a price.
Elizabeth’s days are spent repetitiously holding court. Her only distraction is the dashing seafarer Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), who has returned home from the New World with larger-than-life tales of adventure and daring-do. Intoxicated with his cavalier familiarity, Elizabeth is all too aware that she has forbidden herself any attachment that might distract her from her duties (with a moniker like “The Virgin Queen” could there be any other outcome?). In order to keep the roguish Raleigh close, Elizabeth encourages her favorite lady-in-waiting and alter ego, Bess (Abbie Cornish), to befriend him, even though it tortures her to witness their growing intimacy.
But the Queen has little time to dwell on personal matters. Treachery is ever present and many openly clamor for her throne. Although the Protestant Elizabeth strives to create a country of religious tolerance, her fundamentalist Catholic enemies, including her own cousin Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton), plot her assassination. Her most trusted advisor and the head of her intelligence network, Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush, also reprising his role), works to unmask her betrayers, but even he may be too late. The Spanish king Philip II (Jordi Molla), has constructed a sea-faring armada, which bears within its hulls the Spanish Inquisition, to crush England and restore it to Catholicism.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age is unquestionably a sumptuous affair. The acting is impeccable. The lavish costume design is sure to electrify even the most jaded eye. The production design, much of it shot within Britain’s cathedrals, is breathtaking. As with the first film, people are dwarfed by the architecture. Kapur’s camera prefers to linger in the rafters, looking down on its puny humans from impossibly high vantage points.
Though the sense of scale remains unchanged from the first film, The Golden Age is brighter, warmer and faster than its predecessor. While the first Elizabeth was largely undemonstrative, its sequel is anything but. Elizabeth: The Golden Age suffers from being intensely more histrionic than the original. This is an epic, to be sure, but it is also a melodrama to match, a soap opera of titanic scale and bluster. Craig Armstrong’s sweeping, unceasing score is stunning but bombastically over-the-top, as are the visuals it frames. Too often the film vanquishes subtlety with hysterical relish, giving us Elizabeth bestride a white horse dressed in armor as Joan d’Arc giving the now perfunctory St. Crispin’s Day speech, or Raleigh swinging from the rigging like Errol Flynn.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age is an overpowering experience. In the end, we know we have seen something beautiful, but was it really necessary to bludgeon the point home so?