Following up 1998's Elizabeth, Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth: The Golden Age falls on a double-edged sword; it's both overly familiar and bizarrely strange. The familiarity comes in how well, and how faithfully, Elizabeth: The Golden Age recreates the look and feel of its predecessor; the same glowing, bold use of color and light, the same mix of shouted imperatives and whispered conspiracies. The cinema in Elizabeth: The Golden Age is distinctive, but it's also not new; while Elizabeth struck audiences with a blast of pure excitement, Elizabeth: The Golden Age is going, less boldly, where another film has gone before. Cate Blanchett returns as Elizabeth I, 27 years after the events chronicled in Elizabeth have put her on England's throne. Geoffrey Rush is back as Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's most trusted and cunning advisor. In Elizabeth, the threat to Elizabeth's reign and life was from within, as a tangled web of claims and conspiracies threatened her life. In Elizabeth: The Golden Age, while the threat of internal sedition is still present, the greater threat comes from Spain's King Phillip (Jordi Mollà), determined to bring England back to the fold of the Catholic Church under the sword. Stirring material, drawn from history -- and material we can't help but feel like we've seen before.
The strangeness of Elizabeth: The Golden Age is harder to articulate, but I think I can best convey it by relating an offhand comment I heard at the Toronto Film Festival the day after the press screening of Elizabeth: The Golden Age. A fellow reviewer a few rows back was chatting with a friend about a sequence where Cate Blanchett's queen rallies her troops on the shores of England to be ready to repel an invading Spanish army. Elizabeth is on horseback, and attired in regal yet warlike fashion, the very image of a warrior-queen. The person I was eavesdropping on was making light of the scene: " ... and I kept thinking, 'If she's going out to lead troops against Spain, then why'd she spend so much time on her hair?'" She and her friend laughed, and I couldn't help but see the offhand joke as something deeper, a pure demonstration of how alien and bizarre the past can be to us: I think that if you were going out to convince hundreds of armed men to face death in opposition to overwhelming odds in the name of your right to rule, over your interpretation that it was God's will that you and not another should sit on the throne and wear the crown ... well, I think that you'd want to look as good as possible. Elizabeth's reign may have led to the world we live in, but the world she lived in was very different from ours, and the mind occasionally staggers trying to comprehend such strangeness. What's easy to comprehend is Blanchett's commitment to the role, which is immediately evident, and grants her absolute possession of a role countless great actresses (including Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Bette Davis and many more) have put their stamp on. With Blanchett's craft and charisma guiding the performance, Elizabeth's amusement falls like gentle rain; her wrath comes like fire from the heavens. Her strength is undeniable; her grief, inconsolable. Another actress could very easily get lost in the vast spaces within Kapur's direction and William Nicholson and Michael Hirsts's script -- reduced to nothing more than a few stern frowns clad in exquisite gowns, flailing for purchase in the grandeur and the glow created as past history meets modern art direction and cinema technique. But Blanchett is our anchor, as Elizabeth was for her besieged nation; when we feel overwhelmed, we can always look to her as the cold, bright North Star of the story.
And we do feel overwhelmed: Occasionally, we're bowled over by the fire-and-brimstone wrath of Phillip's crusade, manifested in a digitally-created armada that spans the sea as far as sight can witness. We get lost on other occasions in the web of treachery, treason and plot that underlies the claims and crimes of Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton). And the film descends into stylish soap opera when rakish, roguish Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen, whose swagger and stubble make him a wolf among lambs at court) catches Elizabeth's eye but also attracts the affections of her lady-in-waiting Elizabeth Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish). This last plot played the most disastrously for me, as what must have been intended as an exploration of Elizabeth's vulnerable heart beating and breaking within the steely cloak of all her power instead played out like the Betty-Veronica-Archie triangle with fancy wigs for the girls and blowsy pantaloons for Archie.
Some have claimed that Elizabeth: The Golden Age plays too fast-and-loose with history in the name of cinema. All I can say to that is to note that when I saw Elizabeth: The Golden Age, I wasn't at the library; I was at the movies. Partially amused by the film's tarted-up, dumbed-down version of history, mildly confounded by the stutter and snap and shift of the plots and subplots, I was nonetheless completely enthralled by a piece of pure cinema, a movie where every camera shot and film edit and sound design choice and piece of costuming mattered. Kapur's film is like its subject: Towering, troubled, powerful, flawed and (literally) majestic. At one point, the Queen thinks back and we see a moment from early on in Elizabeth, with Blanchett's future queen laughing and playing on a summer lawn, girlish and giddy. Elizabeth: The Golden Age could have used a few of those human moments -- it feels like we only glimpse the person who wears the crown in a few scenes, mostly shots of an exhausted Blanchett pulling off that day's wig to reveal the close-cut cap of hair beneath. And still, even as Kapur over-uses that device, we can't look away from Blanchett's haunted eyes. Elizabeth: The Golden Age may lack the riveting newness of its predecessor, and it may stumble in its attempt to convey the rich strangeness of England's past, but it's still a rousing, beautiful and ambitious film wrapped around Blanchett's incandescent, undeniable performance.