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Elizabeth: The Golden Age   C-

Universal Pictures / Working Title Films

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Shekhar Kapur
Writers: William Nicholson, Michael Hirst
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Clive Owen, Rhys Ifans, Jordi Mollà, Abbie Cornish, Samantha Morton, Tom Hollander.

Review by Rob Vaux

Three Oscar winners helped shape my opinion of Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and ironically, only one of them actually appears in the film. That would be Cate Blanchett of course, whose original turn as the title character in Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth made her an international star... even after it was inexplicably snubbed at the 1998 Academy Awards (a.k.a. The Ones Harvey Stole). If nothing else, the anticipation surrounding The Golden Age confirms how wrongheaded that decision was. Compare the salivary tingle at the thought of Blanchett reprising her role as Queen Elizabeth with the thought of Gwyneth Paltrow reprising... well, any role. In any film. Ever.

And yet even as one rival is vanquished, another rises to show this new movie its place. Helen Mirren's Oscar victory last year (for playing another queen with the same name) was aided in part by her performance in the HBO miniseries Elizabeth I, covering the same basic era as The Golden Age with infinitely more richness and depth. One assumes that Blanchett could elevate her game in light of such a challenge, especially when reunited with Kapur and supported by the likes of Geoffrey Rush and Samantha Morton. Unfortunately, such is not to be. The Golden Age proves nothing more than a hollow facade, all pretty pictures and shouted lines devoid of the complexity to give them life. It eschews the Masterpiece Theater-style pretension of Mirren's version in favor of the sexier bombast from Kapur's first Elizabeth. But like so many sequels, it loses the substance by focusing too much on the style.

The period encompasses perhaps the greatest single danger to Elizabeth's reign: the Spanish Armada, which tried to invade England in 1588 before running into a little problem with the weather. Beneath that panorama, The Golden Age follows its predecessor in studying how Elizabeth's personal needs as an individual are subsumed by her duties to the state. The threat, as before, stems from native English Catholics, who would like nothing more than to place her imprisoned cousin Mary (Morton) on the throne, and the Spanish, who consider her nothing less than the devil incarnate. But how can a queen concentrate on such weighty matters when dashing rogues like Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) keep lounging around the palace? With his manly stubble and cheeky impudence, he soon sets the royal heart aflutter, despite making occasional eyes at the queen's ravishing lady-in-waiting (Abbie Cornish). It's so not fair when poopy old Spain sends its poopy old assassins to interrupt their Me Time, or builds a ginormous fleet full of Inquisitors to come over and totally ruin everything! Gee, I wonder if Raleigh could help us out with all that -- he's good at sailing and stuff.

Sir Walter, of course, has a much larger role in confronting the Armada here than he did in real life. The Golden Age plays fast and loose with a number of other historical facts too: rearranging timeframes, compressing key events, and engaging in typical Hollywood liberties for the sake of story. And yet the story does so little to justify such mangling. Kapur and screenwriters William Nicholson and Michael Hirst have shaped the intrigues of court into a one-note soap opera, propped up by the gravitas of the era but otherwise little different than a Sweet Valley High novel. Owen's countenance is carefully manufactured to deliver the prescribed infusion of bad-boy desire, while his quasi-love triangle with Blanchett and Cornish contains neither the passion to hold us rapt nor the plausibility (despite its basis in fact) to feel truthful. Blanchett suffers under similar conceits, displaying wit and warmth at times, but saddled by sequences that paint her as a spoiled and frightened child unable to meet the momentous challenge before her. Presumably, the film hoped such traits would lend her a sense of humanity, but in light of Mirren's superior depiction of the same dilemma, the results feel simplistic in the extreme.

To that, Kapur brings the expected pomposity of set and costume design, married to a thundering score and some reasonably effective special effects to convey the dramatic sinking of the Armada. They provide an interesting visual palate but exhibit the same emotional monotony dogging the storyline beneath them. Even forgiving the inaccuracies, their tone lends more knee-jerk excitement than thematic weight: no different in that sense than the aliens or spaceships from the gaudiest summer blockbuster.

Flashes of more interesting material appear here and there, most of which evokes the delicious political machinations of the first film. Rush has the best of it, reprising his role as sneaky git supreme Sir Francis Walsingham while various Spanish-backed plotters cross swords with him in glowering shades of black and red. An equally encouraging figure is the queen's astrologer, John Dee (David Threlfall): posited here as a glorified witch doctor who accentuates the fragility of Elizabeth's enlightened policies and the lingering presence of fear and superstition which the era had still not entirely conquered. The shadowy appearance of such Machiavellian elements makes for a blessed relief from the sound and noise that otherwise predominate.

Even so, The Golden Age remains a failure on most any appreciable level: as compelling drama, as a history lesson, as a showcase for Blanchett's unparalleled talents... even as a sequel, which is obligated to expand and build upon the foundation of its predecessors. One expects such weighty subject matter to give it a leg up in that department, but sadly, it proves as willing to fall back on lazy routine as any straight-to-video horror film. The Golden Age makes for decent pageantry in the rawest terms, and it has enough sense to keep a reasonable running time. But throughout the whole of that running time, its central thesis -- the conflict this extraordinary woman felt between her desire and her responsibilities -- never seems half so insightful as the simple, heartless necessity of the line which closed the first film: "I am married to England." Unless it can add something new to such finality, The Golden Age really needn't have bothered.

Review published 10.13.2007.

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