There is one scene in the second half of Elizabeth: The Golden Age that epitomizes the film’s basic inconsistencies. Queen Elizabeth I is in a rage over the sexual exploits of her lady-in-waiting Bess, and confronts her servant in the castle while wearing her dainty sixteenth-century clothing. Out of nowhere, she growls “My bitches wear my collars.” Hmm, not quite what I was expecting.
Shekhar Shapur’s film is a sequel to his 1998 work Elizabeth. The year is 1585, and England is in grave danger as Spain and those creepy Catholics are agitating for a war to drive the free-minded Virgin Queen, played by Cate Blanchett, from her throne. Toss in assassination attempts and the distracting good looks of hunky Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), and you’ve got yourself a plot.
It is just too bad the writing is crap. From the get-go, the storyline is framed in a clumsy us-vs.-them set-up. King Phillip of Spain is the religious fanatic intent on spilling blood for the one true church, and Queen Elizabeth is the bastion of reason and liberty standing against the hordes of faith-driven maniacs. Writers William Nicholson and Michael Hirst essentially scream in your ear, “This is relevant to today!” It’s sad that the movie uses this good guys and bad guys tactic, because the first film had nuance and subtlety. In the sequel, Catholics seem to only wear red and black and hang out in damp, poorly-lit caverns. Protestants, on the other hand, enjoy the color blue, natural light and air. It’s as if the writers took a peek at the 300 playbook and copied the part called “How To Construct Shallow, Ethnocentric Conflicts” without reading up on ass-kicking and well-oiled torsos. You can’t have one without the other. If the creators of Elizabeth didn’t care about intellectual depth, they should have gone all the way and made an action movie. But the weak attempts to combine sophistication with awesomeness result in a lack of both.
If the content is weak, the presentation is a different story. The set design and lighting are simply magnificent. Nearly every scene is awash with evocative color, and the sets are a wonderful distraction from the dialogue. The interior of Elizabeth’s palace is especially beautiful. There is also some very cool camera work throughout the film—photographer Remi Adefarasin must have discovered new tricks with the Steadycam, because there are several fantastic moving shots, including an incredible spin around a standing Elizabeth. You almost wish the film was just a visual work. But there’s acting in there, too. And, for the most part, it rises far above the low standard set by the script. Clive Owen is solid as the swashbuckling Raleigh, and Geoffrey Rush is on top of his game as always playing Walsingham, Elizabeth’s closest advisor. Jordi Mollà gives by far the weirdest performance as King Phillip. With a creepy stare and an even creepier walk, he comes across as a sociopathic pedophile — no doubt exactly what the writers intended.
But the saving grace of the film is Cate Blanchett. She does a terrific job portraying a woman beset by the conflicting demands of her duty, her family and her love. She struts and speaks boldly in the first part of the film, always balancing her poise with a bit of humor. But as danger approaches and her love for Raleigh goes unrequited, Elizabeth comes close to a nervous breakdown. Blanchett shines especially in a disturbing scene of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth’s cousin. Running through the halls of the castle, she alternately screams for the execution to be halted and breaks down in acceptance of the necessary. It’s a wonderful glimpse of the emotional cost of uniting the spheres of power and family. Rich personal conflicts such as this deserve much better treatment than the writing of Elizabeth: The Golden Age gives them. The focus on the character of Elizabeth, which no doubt would have held up under the superb acting of Blanchett, is blurred by the banal conflict with Spain and the Catholics. It’s true that works set in the past should have some relevance to us today, but Shapur and his writers try too hard to give the movie modern overtones, where, of course, they don’t fit. Part of the charm of period pieces is seeing how different life used to be. Beating the audience over the head with connections to our time, via awful dialogue and tired clichés, is a shame.