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Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Elizabeth: The Golden Age 2007, directed by Shekhar Kapur | Film review

DIRECTOR: Shekhar Kapur

CAST: Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Clive Owen, Abbie Cornish

REVIEW:

Shekhar Kapur’s sequel to his 1998 lavish historical costume drama Elizabeth, despite reuniting the director, screenwriter Michael Hirst, and stars Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush, is an example of a sequel being, if not a precipitous drop, at least a downgrade from its predecessor. Elizabeth: The Golden Age, while including some rousing moments, too often feels more like a lavish costume soap opera than the intrigue potboiler of its predecessor.

We pick up in 1585. Spain is the most powerful nation in the world and its ruler King Philip (Jordi Molla), a Catholic zealot, has declared holy war against the “heretical” Protestant Elizabeth I of England (Cate Blanchett). To this end, he is in league with anti-Elizabeth British Jesuits to assassinate Elizabeth and replace her with her Catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton), while also building a mighty Spanish Armada to destroy the British fleet and conquer England. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is still under heavy pressure from her advisers, chiefly her spymaster Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), to marry. Elizabeth rejects many politically advantageous potential matches, but is attracted to the dashing explorer Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), who has just returned from the New World. However, Raleigh has also caught the eye of Elizabeth’s favorite attendant Bess Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish).

Elizabeth: The Golden Age is less compelling than its predecessor, or at least less consistently so. The first film, for the most part, served up enough mix of adventure, romance, and intrigue to avoid getting bogged down. The pacing here is uneven. The inordinate amount of time and focus spent on the Elizabeth/Raleigh/Bess love triangle turns large segments of The Golden Age into a lavish costume soap opera. A well-made and well-acted soap opera, to be sure, but this material isn’t nearly as interesting as the Game of Thrones-esque labyrinthine court intrigues of the first film, and the odd aspects the movie chooses to focus on doesn’t leave much screentime or development for anything else. As before, there’s a varied cadre of villains—though one could argue that who counts as a “villain” is a matter of perspective—but the intrigues here feel shallower and more thinly-developed and whisked through in truncated fashion. Elizabeth’s distant nemesis and the “big bad”, King Philip of Spain, whose appearances in the flesh are few and fleeting, is depicted in one-note fashion as a Catholic fanatic convinced he is on a mission from God to destroy the “heretic” Elizabeth. If the first movie was accused of being anti-Catholic, The Golden Age arguably leans even harder into it, replete with ominous priests and Catholic imagery invariably depicted in sinister context, though for what it’s worth, director Shekhar Kapur has denied the film is anti-Catholic, claiming it is merely anti-religious extremism. Likewise, Mary “Queen of Scots” Stuart has scant screentime and thin development. The movie throws in a more action-oriented climax, but the depiction of the naval battle with the Spanish Armada is treated in too obligatory and perfunctory a fashion to generate much of an impression, and feels over too neatly, easily, and bloodlessly. Either the intrigue involving Mary Stuart or the battle with the Spanish Armada could have supplied enough material to be the central focus of a movie unto itself, leaving neither of them feeling like they’ve been given their due.

Elizabeth rankled some for its dramatic license, and The Golden Age likewise takes some liberties with the historical record. The assassination attempt on Elizabeth is exaggerated for dramatic effect (in reality, it was thwarted while still in the planning stage), as is Walter Raleigh’s role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada (in fact, Raleigh’s importance has the feel of being inflated in general). As in the first film, the timeline is fudged and condensed by squeezing so many pivotal events into the short timeframe onscreen. Several key figures from the time period, such as Elizabeth’s lover Robert Dudley and her adviser William Cecil (who were played by Joseph Fiennes and Richard Attenborough in the previous film, which somewhat inaccurately portrayed them as being kicked to the curb) are left out altogether.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age - Movies - Review - The New York Times

It’s hard to deny that the cast of characters are weaker this time around. The only two returning cast members from Elizabeth are Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush, and neither’s material is up to the standards they got to sink their teeth into last time. As before, Blanchett is the strongest singular asset the movie possesses. It’s not a standout performance on the same level as what she brought to the part nearly a decade ago—partly because of her shallower material—but she’s still a commanding, colorful presence who’s capable of arresting the camera’s attention . Rush disappointingly doesn’t have much to do this time around, and thus is a less forceful presence; Walsingham feels diminished compared to the deliciously Machiavellian figure he was in Elizabeth. Clive Owen is suitably dashing and charismatic, but the semi-romance between Elizabeth and Raleigh feels a bit trumped up and forced, and the secondary romance between Raleigh and Abbie Cornish’s Bess Throckmorton feels an inappropriate subplot to be given so much screentime and attention when there’s more interesting things going on in the background. The first movie made even comparatively minor roles distinctive and compelling in a way that’s not always true here even of main characters like Raleigh and Bess. Samantha Morton isn’t given enough screentime or development to build Mary, Queen of Scots into a fully-formed character. Smaller roles include Jordi Molla as Elizabeth’s adversary King Philip, Rhys Ifans as a Jesuit priest in league with Philip, Tom Hollander as Mary’s keeper, David Threlfall as Elizabeth’s astrologer, and Eddie Redmayne as Elizabeth’s would-be assassin.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age has its rousing moments—Cate Blanchett gets at least one standout moment, a wonderfully fiery tirade where she hurls threats at a Spanish ambassador (“I too can command the wind, sir!“)—and is still visually colorful and sumptuous (costumes and locations are every bit as impressive as before), but the narrative isn’t up to the same level. As sequels go, it’s not a catastrophic drop, but it’s at least a mild disappointment.

* * 1/2

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