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.