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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (review)

Good to Be the Queen

Torture! Intrigue! Sex! Treachery! Holy war! Cate Blanchett in royal drag! Clive Owen in pirate drag! We are highly amused. If 10th-grade history was as much fun as this, no one would ever cut class. Seriously, though: Why don’t they teach us history in school like this, full of passion and power and, you know, people when they’re as mesmerizing and complex as this? Not only would school be more fun, but then we wouldn’t have ignoramuses on the Internet wondering whether this is a “sequel” to 1998’s Elizabeth — what? Elizabeth Returns? The Further Adventures of Elizabeth: Queen of the Britons? — and just where the hell Robert Dudley is, because Joseph Fiennes was simply sooooo cute in that first one.
The ignoramuses make my point, perhaps: with Elizabeth, director Shekhar Kapur made a movie so enthralling that audiences forgot to remember that it was culled from history and so “must” be dull. With his long-time-coming followup, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, he does it again, continuing, ahem, the adventures of the woman who is perhaps the greatest monarch England has ever known with a thrilling film ripe with ardor and obsession. Not to mention enough contemporary relevance to keep the entire writing staff of The National Review in a tizzy over how to interpret it.

Spain, you see, in the Year of Our Confused Lord 1585, is threatening to bring the Catholic jihad of the Inquisition to Protestant England — which “God has abandoned,” lisps the Spanish king, Philip II (Jordi Mollà: The Alamo, Bad Boys II) — perhaps, oh, aboard a kickass Armada. Moderate Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett: Notes on a Scandal, The Aviator) refuses to punish the Catholics in her country merely for their beliefs, even though they make up the half of the population that still “clings to the old superstition.” But her barely leashed guard dog Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Candy) will take care of the punishing: his hobbies including torturing “papists” (because torture is one of those horrible things they did back in the uncivilized ancient past) as well as ferreting out all manner of plots against Her Majesty… one of which looks to trace itself all the way back to Elizabeth’s cousin, the exiled Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton: The Libertine, Code 46).

It all allows Blanchett, reprising her role as the queen, to storm around furiously, howling fury at Spanish ambassadors and such — the intervening decade has only seen her supremacy as an actor increase, and she is all seething rage, all fierce maternal protection with the force of a hurricane behind it and the passion to encompass an entire nation. This is no still, inanimate portrait, stiff with false regality, but the fiery storm of a real woman, alive and fervent and elegant and human. And so we have Elizabeth as indominable spirit and quietly lonely heart, too: she is instantly taken with the explorer, adventurer, and “pirate” Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen: Shoot ’Em Up, Children of Men) the moment he presents himself at court with gifts from the New World: the potato; tobacco; his own charming and seductive self. He says things like, “Do we discover the New World or does the New World discover us?” and he looks like Clive Owen, so of course she falls madly for him. But she can’t give in — can she? — what with being married to England and all. What’s a girl monarch to do?

War is hell, but it’s also a good outlet for frustrated lust, so she straps on her armor and slaps on her Bodiccia wig and rides out to rally her troops awaiting the Armada. And as if there weren’t enough all through the riveting two-hour running time to convince you that this is history as it should be told — history as adventure, as people lusting and dreaming and loving and hating and scheming — here we have a breathtaking sequence surrounding the Armada (I won’t tell you what happens in case you’ve forgotten how Philip’s little adventure ended), and it suddenly strikes you: This is the first historical epic of the post-Lord of the Rings era, an astonishing movie that sings with that same kind of fictional might and muscle, creating a place that, for all that it’s lost in the past, feels like a distant land we might, in fact, visit today.

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MPAA: rated PG-13 for violence, some sexuality and nudity

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
  • I had a major love/hate relation with the first Elizabeth movie (though I do think Blanchett should have won the Oscar that year, rather than Paltrow). It looked wonderful and sounded wonderful but butchered the history at times.

    In the first movie, early on, Elizabeth almost yells at Mary’s men who were questioning her about her religious beliefs. In real life, until she became queen, she was never, ever confrontational about her religious beliefs. She always “went with the flow,” (attending mass with Mary even, from time to time) because she didn’t want to be executed. She was extremely pragmatic and kept her head as a result.

    Also, while there were certainly plots against her life, there’s no evidence that anyone ever got almost close enough to her to assassinate her.

    And she probably did die a virgin (as we understand the term). She certainly had “physical relations” (i.e. kissing/caressing) men, but I don’t think there’s any evidence she ever took a lover to bed.

    Actual history can still be exciting. It doesn’t have to be jazzed up. Elizabeth had a fascinating life, and I hope the second Blanchett movie doesn’t wander quite so far as the first one did.

    If Robert Dudley doesn’t appear in the movie, this is a serious historical problem already. He and Elizabeth were “on again, off again,” but they were fairly close during the Spanish Armada period, and he died not long after it happened. If Joseph Fiennes didn’t have time/interest to be in the movie, he should have been recast. The recent Helen Mirren/Jeremy Irons movie is reasonably accurate in this regard (though Elizabeth was not at his deathbed).

  • Katie

    “Why don’t they teach us history in school like this, full of passion and power and, you know, people when they’re as mesmerizing and complex as this?”

    It looks like Laurie beat me to it even though I wasn’t going to comment but now I can’t help myself. I agree with your comment above. I absolutely 100% do. If history was taught with passion and nuance and all the other wonderful things that go along with it movies like this wouldn’t be made because people would know that this movie (though I have not seen the movie) and its predecessor were painfully inaccurate.

    I’m an Elizabethian scholar, I’m in the process of applying for grad school to get higher degrees on Elizabeth, I have loved her since the 4th grade so when I see people butchering her life like this I tend to take it personally. Yes it’s just a movie but if you are going to claim that something is a biography you have a responsibility to be as accurate as possible. I accept that some changes must be made for the sake of film but to so alter facts of Elizabeth’s life (she was really and truly a VIRGIN QUEEN!!!) is not necessary. The truth of her life has more than enough intrigue and passion and drama and all the other things that make a good movie without having to make it up.

    It pains me because I would love to see a movie about Elizabeth with this kind of budget and studio support made…but not at this cost. It might be a wonderful movie but it’s one that I cannot watch (I threw milk duds at the screen during the first one).

  • Katie, I’m not a scholar, but I’ve also been fascinated by the Tudors since childhood. The recent BBC version of Elizabeth (the two-parter with Mirren and Irons) was probably close to 90% historically accurate and was extremely stirring. The brilliant Glenda Jackson Elizabeth from the early 70s has long bits from her actual speeches.

    The more I read reviews of The Golden Age, the more it sounds like yet another history f*ck. *grumble*

  • Just saw this in the theaters and loved it. Yes, it got the history wrong–in the details. But it got it right in the broad strokes: in the emotions of the day and the issues at stake.

    I don’t expect a historical movie to get the details right. What I do expect is for a movie to get the story of the history right; and this one succeeded.

  • Mel

    I don’t know–I really wanted to love this movie, even if for nothing other than eye candy, but after the Mirren/Irons miniseries, it was just…kind of boring. I don’t know HOW they managed to take the excitement and intrigue out of the politics and the love affairs, but they somehow did. And the costumes kind of disappointed me, too–not only inaccurate, but less attractive than the real thing to boot.

    I’d save my money and buy the BBC DVD, except I already bought it. But it’s both more accurate and (IMO) more emotionally moving and better acted (although sadly not displayed on the big screen).

  • They airbrushed out Sir Francis Drake! OK, he’s onscreen for about two minutes, but really… We’re talking about one of the greatest seafaring heroes in history, and he’s upstaged by Clive Owen poncing about as Raleigh.

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