Nine years ago, when director Shekhar Kapur’sElizabeth was released, its historical inaccuracies and soap opera-ish tendencies were overlooked on account of a brave and brilliant performance by a then-unknown Aussie: Cate Blanchett. She was robbed of the Best Actress Oscar, losing toShakespeare in Love star Gwyneth Paltrow.
Paltrow’s co-star Judi Dench won the supporting actress Academy Award that year, playing an older Queen Elizabeth I. It’s that same era of rule that Blanchett now takes on in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, once again brought to the screen by Kapur. The immensely talented actress has since won her Oscar (for The Aviator) and proven she’s one of the finest actresses in Hollywood today – doubters should check out her recent performance in Notes on a Scandal or her surprising turn as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There.
Unfortunately Blanchett’s performance is the only redeeming quality in The Golden Age, which despite its title is a surprisingly colourless film. A lesser thespian would shrink inside those lavishly designed costumes and impeccable wigs but the luminous 38-year-old commands the screen at every turn, at times without uttering a word.
Kapur once again flouts history in his telling of the Queen’s life story – which picks up in the late 16th century as Protestant England finds itself in danger of being invaded by Spain’s King Philip II (Jordi Molla), who wants to see the return of Roman Catholicism in the country, through a bloody battle if necessary. His plan: to unseat Elizabeth and install her Catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton), upon the throne.
More confident in her rule, Elizabeth shouts down the Spanish sovereign and his threats to bring the Armada to British shores. In the film’s most dramatic sequence, she blasts, “I, too, can command the wind, sir! I have a hurricane in me that will strip Spain bare if you dare to try me!” You could have heard a pin drop in the theatre when Blanchett delivers this blistering attack.
The Queen’s loyal subject Sir Francis Walsingham (played once again byGeoffrey Rush) implores her to marry, but suitor after suitor bores the spirited ruler. The man who does catch her eye, Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), is charming but a commoner and therefore off limits. To keep him near she encourages lady-in-waiting Bess (Abbie Cornish) to strike up an acquaintance with him, but is heartbroken and bitterly angry when she learns that their friendship has blossomed into romance. A scene in which Elizabeth pettily banishes both borders on the ridiculous, and her lovesick fury seems out of character – especially when there’s no proof the Queen actually harboured such feelings for Raleigh.
Kapur’s film is starkly beautiful – Elizabeth’s flaming red hairpieces and gowns (ranging from gold to indigo) are exquisite and stand out against the paleness of both her skin and the surrounding court. In another scene, reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, she’s clad in a suit of armour, delivering a rousing speech to her troops as they prepare to do battle with Spain.
The battle scene is a disappointment, in part because Kapur didn’t have the budget to do it justice. Instead the audience is left with a too-quick sequence that varies between ship bows crashing into one another and far-off shots that could be computer generated. There’s also the question of Raleigh’s involvement – in the film he’s smack dab in the middle of the fight; history suggests he never left the shore.
Other sequences feel lethargic and soulless; a surprise given the plot contains not only a war but an assassination plot and a beheading.
Fans of Blanchett’s work should see Elizabeth: The Golden Age, as it’s a meaty role that shows off what she’s capable of. Otherwise, the film buckles under its own weight and doesn’t provide much new insight on the intriguing ruler at its centre.
*** (out of 5 stars)
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Clive Owen, Geoffrey Rush, Samantha Morton
Directed by: Shekhar Kapur