Do we discover the New World or does the New World discover us?
— Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett)
“I pretend there’s a pane of glass between me and them. They can’t touch me. You should try it.” When Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) offers this bit of advice to a nervous royal suitor, he smiles obligingly, but admits he just can’t manage the pretense. Instead, Archduke Charles (Christian Brassington) tries again to describe her infinite loveliness, stumbling through his English script. Her Highness tries again, suggesting he say what he’s really thinking. Ah no, he demurs, “I daren’t even think what I’m really thinking.”
Elizabeth’s description of her royal life reveals concisely her authority and loneliness, her genius and rage. It also articulates the general aesthetic in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Shekhar Kapur’s unawaited sequel to his fierce first go at her, 1998’s Elizabeth. That is, the movie unfolds like a series of brilliant paintings, separate from each other, dazzling to look at but inert. The movie takes up the later years of her reign (it begins in her 27th year, when the Queen was 52, though Blanchett doesn’t quite look that), mixing up recorded events, legend, and sheer fantasy.
The historical frame is fairly well known: King Philip II of Spain (Jordi Mollà) is bent on ousting the Protestant Elizabeth and recovering England into the Euro-Catholic fold. England, meantime, is sending forth explorers to the New World, claiming new properties and resources, expanding its commercial empire. Both of these enterprises involve regular, institutional aggressions. But while the film does show some terrible violence inflicted on individuals — both in the Queen’s name and by her spirited enemies — it doesn’t look too deeply at the era’s clashing cultures and politics. Philip appears intermittently, most spectacularly as he and splendidly robed church reps walk along a pier, filmed through a ship’s sails so their grand silhouettes billow and loom. He is invariably attended by his young daughter, to whom he dispenses lessons in ruling ruthlessly, her adorable face upturned and silent.
His seeming familial pathology is paralleled by Elizabeth’s: she has, after all, imprisoned her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton), who means to exact her revenge (in the form of her cousin’s assassination). Given that Mary is very Catholic and Elizabeth is reportedly a virgin and a bastard (following her father’s own notorious difficulties with marriage and religion), Philip and Mary have a mutual interest in installing her as England’s monarch. Mary’s scenes are cut into the rest of the action periodically, veritable tableaux of vindictive fury, as she and her main lady, Annette (Susan Lynch), roll their eyes or clutch their breasts, the Queen proclaiming her rights to her jailers, disdaining their ignorance even as she tries to seduce them into helping her.
Queen Elizabeth I (CATE BLANCHETT) vicariously lives through her loyal subject Sir Walter Raleigh (CLIVE OWEN) and her lady-in-waiting Bess Throckmorton (ABBIE CORNISH)
Elizabeth seems occasionally to regret the current impasse with her cousin, and demonstrates a baleful schizziness to match Mary’s. The movie accepts (or better, makes use of) the idea that she actually is a virgin, and so she, is, apparently quite desperate to get laid. This makes all her courtly proceedings, from the series of auditions by suitors (including the young and unnerved Archduke) to the receptions of explorers back from their adventures, into opportunities for quick gasps and meaningful gazes. The Golden Age is especially smart about the performance-as-combat aspect of all the Queen’s encounters. Several scenes indicate, as breathtaking backdrops, the enormous effort that goes into making her look fabulous: her costumes are vivid (standing among a collection of hundreds of dresses, she commands her dressers to fetch “The blue one!”), her wigs magnificent (again, an entire, vast room houses tem, all shapes and lengths and heights, all incredible reds), and the sheer number of ladies she needs to prepare her for public consumption is astounding.
The Queen’s favorite of these, young Bess Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish), is something of a foil for her mistress, as warm and sensuous as Elizabeth is cold and self-contained. So it’s not a surprise when Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) returns from a jaunt to the New World and finds himself attracted to both women. Though Bess does her duty in instructing him on the proper approach to the Queen, and serves as her messenger, she’s plainly the more appropriate partner for this absurdly dashing figure: not only does toss his coat over a puddle for the Queen, but he also conspicuously stands astride his ship, face to the wind.
But Raleigh is not just a romantic lead and source of tension for the ladies. He also embodies England’s drive to explore, to conquer, to make commerce — to “build,” as he puts it. Describing his most recent voyage across the Atlantic, his eyes go wide as he rhapsodizes: “You live in the grip of fear, fear of storms, fear of sickness on board, fear of the monstrosity.” Ah, it sounds so dreamy! The Queen all but swoons, so smitten is she by this man who has named a land after her (“Virginia”) and produces in her court a trunk of potatoes, tobacco, and a couple of Native Americans, with feathers and face paint intact. She’s so enlightened in this incarnation that she instructs her men to treat the visitors like guests, not the property Raleigh so plainly takes them for.
(L to R, foreground) Trusted advisor Sir Francis Walsingham (GEOFFREY RUSH), lady-in-waiting Bess Throckmorton (ABBIE CORNISH) and Queen Elizabeth I (CATE BLANCHETT)
As the Queen’s emissary, Raleigh is all about making claims and taking whatever he deems his by dint of seeing it “first.” But his work soon takes a backseat to the more sensationally pernicious efforts of Elizabeth’s other primary minion, Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush, returned like Blanchett from the first film). In a scenario where she has plausible deniability, he tracks down, arrests, and secretly tortures an assortment of scoundrels he believes to be plotting against the Queen. His seeming autonomy makes him the villain, though she benefits from his grisly activities (and though she never acknowledges what he does, she shows great appreciation of the results).
Their relationship (as it is more or less consummated in the grisly torture scenes) gestures vaguely toward today’s concerns with the excesses of a wartime empire, but only vaguely. The movie’s focus is insistently the psycho-sexual dynamic that grounds Elizabeth’s efforts to keep control of her empire. Some of the details are cutesy (she consults an astrologer who warns that his field is yet “more an art than a science”), but others are ludicrous. One moment she’s imagining herself in sunlight, hair cascading as she cavorts with Raleigh, and the next she’s commanding him to look down as she passes (“You are not my equal, sir, and you never will be!”).
When she can’t quite sort her feelings out and he finds solace elsewhere, she displaces her desire onto a showdown with the Spanish Armada (digitized, so they look as unbelievable as the plot is turning). Stiff and strange, the movie is full of bravura speeches (“I have a hurricane in me!” pronounces the Queen) and dazzling visuals: a gun firing at Elizabeth blasts the screen away into bright white light; she enacts her plan for the Armada enacted on a floor map with giant gold model ships, spectacularly shot from overhead like a living chessboard. But the beauty is, at last, too ravishing. The movie feels more superficial than significant, like it’s stuck behind a pane of glass.