“Elizabeth: The Golden Age” is a follow-up less golden than its 1998 predecessor. Without the pleasure of watching Cate Blanchett continue the role that launched her to stardom, there would be little to recommend this latest of many cinematic and television accounts of the celebrated monarch’s life, which is melodramatic, narrowly concerned with portraying her human vulnerabilities, and, thanks to a constantly pounding musical score, bombastic. Commercial prospects look OK but less promising than what a first-rate film of this nature would command.
Shekhar Kapur’s look at the regent’s earlier years enjoyed the considerable benefit of the discovery of a new face staking her claim as a great actress, as well as of a fresh supporting cast and youthful energy all around.
This time, there is a nagging feeling of everything having been given slightly short shrift, beginning with the script. By putting Elizabeth’s unpursuable attraction to Walter Raleigh, and the feelings of frustration and frailty that go with it, at the core, the queen is strangely diminished and made more common, not more human.
Scenarists William Nicholson and Michael Hirst, the latter of whom penned the first film, have also failed to supply the juicy wit and linguistic elegance expected in the best period fare, leaving one with relatively standard-issue political plotting, black-and-white contrasting of Catholics as bad guys and Protestants as good guys, and a reductive reading of history.
All things considered, the present Queen Elizabeth has much more to be happy about where her contemporary screen depiction is concerned than would the first.
Story is taken up in 1585, the 27th year of Elizabeth’s reign, when — as the script avoids noting — the Virgin Queen of legend was 52 years old. Blanchett looks a good two decades short of this, decidedly of child-bearing age and as alluring as any of her ladies-in-waiting, all in the interest of promoting a possible romance with the raffish, dashing Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), who entrances her with tales of his expedition to the New World, where he has named Virginia after her, and to request backing for his return to create an English settlement there.
Raleigh’s presence distracts her, but causing the queen genuine preoccupation are the Catholic threats posed by her cousin Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton), under castle arrest in Scotland, and by her former brother-in-law, King Philip II of Spain (a mincing Jordi Molla), who’s chopping down half his country’s trees to build a mighty armada with which to invade Britain.
Tale’s underbrush is littered by annoyingly anonymous Catholic traitors, backed by Mary and Philip, plotting to murder Elizabeth, who is increasingly taken with Raleigh. The two ride together in the country and achieve what, for the queen, must sadly pass for intimacy, a state more completely achieved between Raleigh and Elizabeth’s favorite young companion, the beautiful Bess (Abbie Cornish); when the latter becomes pregnant, Elizabeth banishes them both for a while.
Vibrant, intelligent and intellectually curious, this Elizabeth is also prone to anguished insecurity. In embarrassing exchanges, she goes so far as to utter the modernism, “I’m very tired of always being in control,” and, later on, to ask Raleigh, “In another world, could you have loved me?” before essentially begging him to kiss her. The queen is also quite taken with astrology, and regularly demands of her resident expert (an amusing David Threlfall) more specific reassurances about the outcomes of events than he is able to provide.
In due course, the assassins are thwarted, Mary is beheaded (to Elizabeth’s great consternation) and the Spanish are on the verge of sailing down the Thames. With this, defenses are deployed and the CGI crew takes over the picture until the marauders are routed, with Raleigh doing an impressive bit of underwater swimming in the bargain.
Overall, pic takes a small-minded view of history and, in its rush to proceed from one tumultuous event to the next, lacks any sense of occasion relative to the significant pageant it attempts to depict. There’s no view of Elizabeth other than that she was a human being, too, but that is hardly enough.
The saving grace is Blanchett, who is always striking to watch even when her character is doing and saying things you don’t believe, and not doing things you’d like her to do. Her Elizabeth is so indisputably flesh-and-blood that no further point need be made of it. Most of her best moments come early on when she is holding court and dealing in different ways with assorted courtiers — dismissively, with formality-breaking down-to-earth remarks, or with judiciously expressed interest.
Hair tousled and torso accoutered in roguish style, Owen’s Walter Raleigh would have been right at home in a ’30s or ’40s Hollywood adventure picture. Geoffrey Rush returns from the original as Elizabeth’s closest adviser, Sir Francis Walsingham; Cornish is perfectly comely as the court hottie; while Morton has a terrific moment when, after nervously awaiting news of Elizabeth’s assassination, her hopeful expectations turn to emotional obliteration upon learning her cousin has survived and she herself is now under arrest for treason — you can feel the breath of life go right out of her.
Production values most excel in the costume, makeup and hair departments, and least excel in the musical score, which almost never takes a break and bludgeons the ears in the worst modern manner.