Why is it so hard for cinema to make history come alive? The period piece generally brings out the worst in the medium, using unnecessary spectacle and the archness of eras past to stifle creativity and eliminate interest. There have been some successful examples of the genre (Barry Lyndon, Restoration), but for every wonderful, evocative epic, there’s a myriad of mindless recreations that barely find a reason for being. In 1998, Pakistani director Shekhar Kapur got critics attention when he took the story of British monarch Elizabeth I and gave it a sumptuous, human design. The eponymous film brought its star Cate Blanchett to the fore of young Australian actresses, and proved that a glance backward could be as revealing as any forward thinking speculation. Now, nearly 10 year later, the second part of a proposed trilogy by the director has arrived. But unlike his first foray, all we get is history lost among the ruins.
Spain is ensconced in an unending holy war. The Inquisition, incited by King Phillip II, is determined to eradicate all European heathens – and top on their list is Britain’s Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. As part of a mandate from God, Phillip ransacks his coffers, strips the countryside bare, and builds a massive fleet with the distinct purpose of crossing the Channel and ridding England of its whore sovereign. As the first step, however, a plan of assassination will be put into place. In the meantime, Her Majesty has found favor in newly arrived explore Walter Raleigh. He’s engaging and brash, unafraid to approach her as a woman as well as his ruler. At first, it appears Elizabeth’s days as the “Virgin” Queen of her country will end. But then her potential paramour’s eyes wonder to the Court Lady-in-Waiting, Bess. Soon, it will be their love that sets aristocratic tongues wagging. Naturally, the Spanish complete their mission, and set sail toward their destiny. It is up to Elizabeth to rally her troops, gain favor with the various military minds, and court public opinion as a strong, supportive monarch. If she can’t, her nation is doomed.
Playing fast and loose with the facts, and generating little big picture meaning, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, stands as a series of individual court intrigues that fail to add up to any great epiphany. Featuring stellar performances from a well rounded cast, and a narrative that’s so circular it’s almost surreal, we get the shorthand version of 16th Century British monarchy. Director Shekhar Kapur wants us convinced that the events playing out in the House of Tudor are no different than the petty behind the scenes scandals that plague modern royalty. We have a depressed and lonely ruler, a usurper mounting favor along the fringes, a close confident violating the Queen’s trust, and a swashbuckling pseudo pirate whose playing hearts to forward his own agenda. Add in the Inquisition, Spain’s redolent religious fervor, the familial double crosses, and general sovereign uncertainty and you’ve got the material for a virtuoso bodice ripper.
But Elizabeth: The Golden Age, is more interesting in channeling all these catalysts into a kind of mythos mudslinging. We are supposed to see Mary Stuart as a spoiled and arrogant cur, so highly strung that her cheekbones seem supported by guide wires. Instead of a victim of circumstance, or a fatality of standard 1500’s skullduggery, she’s as guileless as she is guilty. Yet Kapur envisions her as a villain, a martyr to a mission she will naturally never benefit from, but still willing to press the issue until she appears mad. Samantha Morton’s cocksure performance doesn’t dissuade our opinion. She plays Mary like the spoiled unseated Prom Queen who’s convinced the entire student body will finally come to their senses and vote her back as the bell of the ball. When she dies – and that’s not a spoiler, for those who remember anything about high school – Kapur holds the camera on her like a comic book antagonist getting her just rewards.
This pomp as pulp ideal ruins many of Elizabeth’s quality interactions. When the Spanish Ambassador and his diplomatic armada saunter into the Court like members of a comedy troupe, you half expect to hear Terry Jones and Eric Idle exchanging Monty Python bon mots. Even better, Clive Owens' Walter Raleigh is like an outcast in his own epoch. He’s so progressive, so filled with the wanderlust of exploration and the vastness of the new world that you sense he would levitate out of his shoes just on the sheer concept of circumnavigation. He comes off as a Classics Illustrated version of himself, a man made out of his legacy and historic contributions, not the human being about to live them. Part of the problem is Owen – he’s just too modern a man to play an Elizabethan dandy. We keep waiting for him to break into his seedy Sin City drawl or - in logistically appropriate fashion – save the infertile of the UK from themselves.
He is countered, of course, by Cate Blanchett. Having walked away with an Oscar nod the first time she donned Her Majesty's various wigs, it’s a role she’s all too familiar with. Part determined leader, part cowardly interpersonal demagogue, the many moods the character must go through are reflected expertly in the English rose’s reddened face. Blanchett was born to play this part, even if Kapur undermines her effectiveness by altering truth to placate his vision. While age is never discussed in the film, Elizabeth fluctuates wildly from youthful spirit to aged spinster, sometimes in the same sentence. Even worse, his last act stand against the sailing Spanish fleet betrays history in order to forge some kind of irrelevant iconography. Oddly enough, her reign is saved by happenstance and naval heroism, not anything she does directly.
Indeed, a lot of the film feels misdirected away from the center. The set up of Spain as a bastion of radicalism is given more import than Elizabeth’s current political situation. Lady in Waiting Bess becomes the fulcrum between Raleigh’s infatuation and the reality of wooing the Queen. Sir Francis Walsingham (a great Geoffrey Rush) has the competing claims of a possible royal assassination and his own failing health to keep him full formed. Even the minor characters, like the evil Jesuit played by Rhys Ifans, seem as integral to the overall approach as anything that happens in Her Majesty’s bedchamber. It’s indicative of where Elizabeth: The Golden Age looses the audience over and over again. For every golden moment of actual meaning, there’s a flash of false idolatry. Kapur is really indulgent here, so in love with the look of things that he fails to move beyond the pretty pictures. While we’re supposed to scoff at the irrationality sealing Spain’s fate, we can’t help but be wowed by the CGI fleet on the horizon.
But what finally fells Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a lack of significance. Perhaps to a nation steeped in the legacy of a great leader, this superficial swipe with many historic alterations would suffice. You get your symbolism and your sense of country too. But outside that interested realm, the relationships and realities play like Harlequin romances with exaggerated chutzpah. That’s the problem with the past – like science fiction, it’s been used for much more than mere factual recounting. Decades of romance novels and equally syrupy cinema have robbed it of its power and scope. Yet a director like Kapur should know better than to pull punches for the sake of spectacle. There is no doubt that his vision is filled with wonder and beauty. Too bad the rest of this film feels flimsy and single minded.