The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, December 13, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Full review behind the jump

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

: Shekhar Kapur
: Michael Hirst and William Nicholson
: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Jonathan Cavendish
: Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Clive Owen, Jordi Mollà, Abbie Cornish, Rhys Ifans, Samantha Morton

I don’t think there is an actress working in Hollywood today with more sheer talent than Cate Blanchett. I say this knowing full well of the existence of Meryl Streep, who has at long last been not surpassed, but I guess I’ll diplomatically say, thrillingly tied. Blanchett’s near-invisible technical mastery, combined with her repeated willingness to shun the spotlight in favor of challenging or off-beat roles, give her the kind of artistic credibility that builds excitement around any project she gets involved with. I doubt there will ever be another actress who can list both Katharine Hepburn and Bob Dylan on their résumé.

She first gained international attention in 1998’s
Elizabeth, essaying a devastating transition from passionate, vivacious young woman to white-masked Machiavellian survivor. She was a revelation; and the movie, blending Godfather-esque pulp scheming with the exotic design temperament of Indian filmmaker Shekhar Kapur, was a refreshingly different brew.

But while her abilities have continued to blossom, the novelty has worn off of that initial introduction.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age, a rare sequel in the world of independent historical thrillers, attempts to strike the same fusion as its predecessor. Many of the ingredients are the same, chief among them Blanchett’s radiance and virtuosity. But some of them – the less visible ones that are nonetheless vital to compelling drama – have gone stale.

The action brings us up to the late 1580’s, when Her Majesty was over a quarter-century into her rule and 52 years of age. That Blanchett is visibly both in her 30’s and glowingly healthy and beautiful is but the first of many historical fudgings. This is a speculative work, more entertainment than matter-of-record, which is not in itself evil; although if you’re going to so overtly de-couple your film from accuracy, it had better be to gripping purpose.

And you can see all the right incidents swirling around. King Philip II of Spain (Jordi Mollà) nakedly desires to conquer the island of Britain with his fearsome armada, but needs to conjure up a reason to do it that everyone (including the Catholic Church) can feel good about. Even in the 16th century, it seems, everyone feels much more comfortable with a pre-invasion fig leaf.

Meanwhile, the Virgin Queen Elizabeth is still keeping her wary distance from the traditional monarchial activities of marrying appropriate nobles and producing heirs, cognizant of the inconvenient realities of her gender’s place in her society, and the questionable legitimacy of her ascension. Her faithful chief spy Sir Francis Walsingham (the always-excellent Geoffrey Rush, picking up his juggling act of pragmatism and ruthlessness from right where he left it) is still swimming a sea of conspiracy. He knows that just because the Queen’s cousin Mary “Queen of Scots” Stuart (Samantha Morton), whom the Catholics view as the rightful Queen, is under house arrest, doesn’t mean she can’t make trouble.

So with such weighty matters to heavy her crown-wearing head, why does Elizabeth get caught up in hopeless infatuation with Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), the roguish oceanic purloiner of Spanish gold? It’s not that Raleigh is anything less than dashing or fascinating, with his dark flashing eyes and casual dismissal of the strangling protocol around court. It’s just that we all watched Elizabeth learn this lesson the first time – that the throne demands she fill her heart with England, not romance.

She certainly still understands the symbolic aura it is her duty to project; watch as she straps on armor to give a rousing speech to her Army, when she knows full well from her advisors that if the opposing Army actually reaches shore to fight them, they will all be killed. If her boasted sureness of victory turns out to be wrong, no witnesses; but if she’s right: one corker of a story for the nation. That’s smart Queening.

And as in the first we have a spectacle of color and texture which is probably not quite right but sumptuous enough that we don’t care. Kapur understands that decadence, corruption, and false piety can snuggle quite comfortably with each other, and he injects that sense right into the stone walls.

His one major visual miscalculation is an attempt to turn his movie into a military epic on us rather abruptly. Certainly any filmmaker in the vicinity of the fabled Spanish Armada will be hard-pressed to resist trying to film it, and digital effects get less expensive by the year. But these ships bobbing around in the artificial water are not all that convincing, and the way they and a rather disappointing attempt at a battle are shoehorned into the action simply invites us to further scrutinize their fakery. A ship that is totally fake can nonetheless be convincing – it just needs a better reason to be there and an audience captivated enough to gaze beyond the fine details.

Because Elizabeth: The Golden Age, at best, is about an emotional epiphany re-iterated, mixed with a few learned lessons of monarchial strategy, it has no hope to transport us to the necessary heights. It could be argued that this longing and jealousy with Raleigh represents The Queen questioning the sacrifice she has had to make, but given the world-shaping circumstances happening around her, it is inconvenient timing to be making such a clear regression. Even Raleigh notices it, and chastises her: “Why do you speak like a fool when you are not?” Whatever passion Blanchett can wrench us to, and by God is she good at it, we’re watching only a faded copy of an old conflict, and what we get feels more episodic than cathartic.


Post a Comment

<< Home