The Golden Age
3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
The sequel to 1998’s “Elizabeth,” “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” is the second in director Shakhar Kapur’s proposed trilogy chronicling the life of Britain’s beloved Queen Elizabeth. Like its predecessor, “The Golden Age” is a lavish costume drama occasionally heightened by moments of swashbuckling bravery and steely intrigue. The romantic flash emanates from the character of Walter Raleigh (smiling, self assured Clive Owen, channeling Errol Flynn), while the intrigue seeps from the likes of Elizabeth’s advisor Francis Walsingham (oily Geoffrey Rush, who could teach the KGB a few tricks). Owen, Rush, and major combatants Elizabeth (regal, pale as porcelain Cate Blanchett), Mary, Queen of Scotts (fetching Samantha Morton) and Phillip II (fanatical Jordi Molla), all throw more ham around the screen than a waiter at Grossinger’s, but their tendency to overact turns a cumbersome script into an impressive costume flick.
“Elizabeth” is set in 1585, three years before the climatic battle between the Spanish Armada (“invincible fleet”) and the upstart English navy. Spain, the known world’s most powerful country, is run by a Roman Catholic, King Phillip II. Queen Elizabeth, a Protestant, rules England. In Phillip’s eyes, Elizabeth’s barbaric beliefs are bad enough, she’s also well aware that pirates like Frances Drake and Walter Raleigh have been boarding Spanish merchantman and stealing his gold, and she’s done nothing to stop them. Itching for a war, Phillip supports the claim to the throne of Elizabeth’s exiled Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.
With war looming and Mary fitting herself for the crown, what better time to try and set Elizabeth up for marriage? Yes, the “Virgin Queen” is pressured into checking out a succession of reluctant suitors so she can create an heir and in the event of her own death still block Mary’s claim to the throne. Into the midst of this matrimonial circus struts Walter Raleigh, recently returned from his exploration of the New World. Elizabeth is immediately smitten by Raleigh’s gallant personality (and, of course, his looks), and assigns her most trusted – and beautiful – lady in waiting, Elizabeth “Bess” Throckmorton (saucy Abbie Cornish) the task of keeping Raleigh amused. Elizabeth proves to be too able at keeping Raleigh amused and winds up pregnant. When Elizabeth finds out she is not amused, and she tosses the two canoodlers in the dungeon.
Prior to Bess and Walt’s blessed event, King Phillip strips the forests of Spain to build the invincible fleet of warships that will conquer England.
Meanwhile, Mary Queen of Scots writes a letter to Phillip giving the green light to a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. Liz is caught off guard (and without her guards) while praying in a church. She bravely walks toward her assassin, her arms outstretched as if to forgive him, convinced he won’t fire. Good thing there was no Las Vegas back then, because Liz would crapped out. The assassin squeezes the trigger. Either he’s a lousy shot at point blank range, or Liz’s elaborate corset slowed the bullet. (Bullets did indeed occasionally have a hard time piercing the heavy garments of the royal families. When Czar Nicholas of Russia and his family were murdered in 1918, their assassins had to pump extra volleys into the Czar’s daughters because of the thickness of their clothes, which were also reinforced with a fortune in jewels.)
Turns out Liz didn’t have to worry about the bullet – the gun was empty. But why the elaborate ruse? Tortured by Walsingham, Liz’s Sergeant at Arms, the assassin reveals Mary’s involvement. Walsingham uncharacteristically oversteps his bounds in prodding Liz to rid herself of the Catholic threat by giving Mary a haircut close to the shoulder.
Elizabeth: The law is for common men, not princes.
Walsingham: The law is for the protection or your people!
Liz waffles, but eventually caves and agrees to try Cousin Mary for treason. Mary goes to the chop shop a martyr for the Catholic cause as she famously says to her reluctant executioner, “I forgive you with all of my heart.” Walsingham realizes too late why the assassin’s gun was empty – Phillip’s support of Mary was an elaborate ruse – he intends to put his young daughter, Isabella, on the English throne. With Mary dead by Elizabeth’s hand, Phillip can get the approval of the Pope to wage war. (“Blood must pay for blood. I call the legions of Christ to war!) You waltzed, or Walsinghammed right into that one, Liz.
The Spanish Armada chugs toward England. Liz sets Walt free. Can the cunning Raleigh and the “Virgin Queen” save England? You can check with the History Channel, but it’s more of a thrill to watch ensuing battle between the rag tag Britons and the elegant Spanish Armada.
The actors must’ve gotten together beforehand and watched a lot of Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHaviland movies because all of their performances have the grandeur of a 40s swashbuckler without being ridiculously over the top. Even the more restrained characters, such as Rush’s Rasputin-like Walsingham, have their it’s-all-about-me moments. Check out Rush’s reaction to being betrayed. You’d expect Walsingham, who’s already shown a talent for torture, to fit the traitor for an Iron Maiden or wield the executioner’s axe himself, yet his reaction and solution is all too human. I’ve never seen Geoffrey Rush give a bad performance, not even as Barbarossa in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy (in which he really is over the top).
Cate Blanchett is stately and proud as Elizabeth, and she deserves her Oscar nomination just for being able to stay upright in some of the most cumbersome costumes you’ll ever see, (one of which looks like a Chinese box kite). She also dons wigs with more cornrows than the cast of “Good Times,” is heavily powdered until her skin has the consistency of liquid paper, and has Whoppi Goldberg’s eyebrows, which means she has none at all. Her regal whiteness and David Bowie features make her a “handsome woman.” But Elizabeth’s problem is not her looks – it’s her position in life. As the Queen Mother of England, the “Virgin Queen,” she’s painted herself in a social corner. She loves Raleigh, but her title and royal blood automatically forbid her from knocking boots with a commoner. Blanchett portrays Liz’s infatuation of Raleigh like an awkward teenager with a crush on the local bad boy, which goes against the Queen’s hardened, always in control personality, but it’s not far fetched as it seems – if you’ve never been in love, Queen or not, the first time love hits you upside your crown, you’re gonna gush. Liz has to give up her own life for her subjects and has never experienced the exhilaration of a horse race or a passionate kiss (until now) and she wants to be loved, even though she knows it’s not in the royal cards. But when the film calls for Liz to step up, (or actually saddle up as she address her troops on a wandering horse before they head into battle), Blanchett, in full Joan of Arc armor and Michelle Phillips flowing hippie hairpiece, is as fearless as General Patton sneering at a Panzer: “I am resolved to be in the heat of battle, to live or die with you all!”
Clive Owen, marvelously understated in “Children of Men” imbues the devil-may-care Raleigh with Errol Flynn’s leer and mannerisms, while sounding like Sean Connery on the loose at the Playboy mansion. He relishes playing the dashing hero, is a seafaring Don Juan in his scenes with Abbie Cornish, and seems to be enjoying himself even as his character faces certain death. Abbie Cornish, as Bess, could have tarted it up as the film’s ingénue, but convinces the viewer that she loves, rather than lusts after Raleigh. Jordi Molla has the tough assignment of playing Phillip II, who seems to be losing his royal marbles one Aggie at a time, but he never over does it by turning Philly into a frothing zealot. My personal favorite is Samantha Morton, who plays the beleaguered Mary Queen of Scots. Morton is an expert at displaying emotion via the heaving bosom, (and there’s plenty of bosom to heave), which gives Cornish a run for her corset in the 16th century babe department. Morton knows how to convey emotion through silence, having played the mute Hattie in Woody Allen’s 1999 film “Sweet and Lowdown.” For “Elizabeth” Morton also sports a Mrs. Doubtfire brogue, a captivating stare, and reacts the way you or I might when she realizes she’s been ratted out. Despite the unflattering Klaus Nomi hairdo in Mary’s execution scene, Morton carries it off like a true Queen. The real shocker comes in the extras when you get to see what Morton looks like off screen. I was pleased, very pleased, but it was a good call to identify the actors interviewed in the extras.
“Elizabeth” plays fast and loose with history. Francis Drake, the real hero in the battle against the Spanish Armada (along with his commander, Lord Howard), gets less screen time than King Phillip’s horse (which, by the way, is a good swimmer). Raleigh was patrolling the coast of Devon at the time of the battle, far way from the action. Elizabeth is also seen observing the battle from a cliff in Tillbury. Impossible. If she’d been standing on the cliffs in Tillbury she’d need a modern observatory and a fully charged cell phone to figure out what was going on. “Elizabeth” also dials back the Queen’s apparent age for Blanchett’s sake. When Elizabeth fell for Raleigh she was on the far, and I do mean far, side of 50, not in her 30s or 40s as the film would lead you to believe. As for poor Mary, the film leaves out that it took the executioner several whacks at her pretty cabeza to separate it from her shoulders, a not uncommon occurrence in the 16th Century. The film would also lead you to believe the Spanish Armada had an overwhelming superiority over the British fleet. The Armada numbered 130 ships; the English had 197 at their disposal. Granted, the Spanish ships were more heavily armed, but the Spaniards were using land-based cannons (for their anticipated invasion), and were overloaded with troops and cargo, making them hard to maneuver. See how writers go out of their way to make us happy?
You’ll bow to the extras, which include segments on the making of “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” creating the Armada (checkout that neat to scale Spanish galleon), an insider look at Elizabeth’s world, and a tour of the elegant churches and castles used in the film. “The Making of Elizabeth: The Reign Continues” features interviews with the actors and staff behind the scenes, including Blanchett, who talks about her character’s progression from scared contender for the crown in the first movie to Queen Mother. Owen, Rush, Molla, Cornish and the unrecognizable Samantha Morton offer insights into their characters and how they approached them. Rush proves to be quite a historian, Owen is still charming, and Molla’s dissertation on Phillip brings the Spanish Monarch out of the nut bag category and back into the realm of humanity. Director Shekhar Kapur is equally succinct in pointing out the differences between the first and second film: “Elizabeth was about the monarchy. This is about divinity.”
You may not say to yourself, “This is the big one, Elizabeth,” but the film’s lavish sets, colorful battle scenes, top notch performances and Morton’s heaving bosom should please. You’ll get caught up in the good versus evil, Protestant versus Catholic struggle. Is Elizabeth a gold medal winner? Maybe not. More like silver. But get out your family crest and armor and check out “Elizabeth: The Golden Age.” You’ll feel like a queen (or king) for a day.