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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