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Elizabeth (1998)/ Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) ~ Review

April 28, 2010

Director: Shekhar Kapur

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Ecclestone, Richard Attenborough, Joseph Fiennes, Kathy Burke (Elizabeth)/ Cate Blanchett, Clive Owen, Abbie Cornish, Geoffrey Rush, Samantha Morton, Jordi Molla (Elizabeth: The Golden Age)

Screenplay: Michael Hirst (Elizabeth)/ William Nicholson, Michael Hirst (Elizabeth: The Golden Age)

UK/ US; 124 minutes; Colour; Certificate: 15 (Elizabeth)/ UK/ US; 114 minutes; Colour; Certificate: 15 (Elizabeth: The Golden Age)


So, if you’ve read the ‘About’ page of this blog, you’ll notice that I warn there may be some ‘smart art’ or historical stuff on here from time to time. Well, to ease you in gently to that likely occurence, I thought I’d first offer up this – a review of two acclaimed yet mainstream movies about one of the most fascinating and, arguably, most glorious eras of British history. Honestly, who doesn’t love Good Queen Bess (well, unless you’re her cousin Mary from north of the border, that is)?

So, up first we have Elizabeth. Yes, that’s right, the multi-Oscar nominated one starring Cate Blanchett from 1998. Upon its release, I recall there being a lot of hooplah about how visceral, relevant and modern a take on the early life of England’s greatest queen this was supposed to be and, I must say, the hype wasn’t exaggerating things. Nowadays, such attempts at dramatising history in a ‘modern way’ are ten-a-penny, especially on the box (Rome, The Tudors and the Beeb’s Charles: The Power and the Passion spring to mind), but back in the late-’90s, such an idea was a bit different, take such faithfully old-fashioned historical romps as Titanic and The English Patient from that decade.

And, I must say, well done to director Shekhar Kapur, for with some real confidence and class he successfully sets interesting visuals, no lack of grit and violence and well-pitched ‘modern’ performances from his cast against the somehow complimentary faithful locations and excellent costumes. His real success, however, is ensuring the film has such a strong storytelling sense throughout – about two-thirds of the way through you find yourself pretty much gripped to see how all the plot’s loose ends’ll tie up, whether you know from history how they should or not.

I’m sure I read somewhere that Kapur wanted to direct this flick as a thriller, for he claimed that’s what Elizabeth’s early life was (she could have been put to death by her sister before becoming queen herself) and the wickedly fast-moving plot is certainly testament to that, and no bad thing.

However, what one may recall most readily is the performances. This is a film with a very groovy cast, but all are on fine form, make no mistake. Geofrrey Rush, Richard Attenbrough, Kathy Burke, Christopher Ecclestone, Vincent Cassel, John Gielgud and Eric Cantona (yes, Eric Cantona!) all offer very strong support – especially Ecclestone as the cut-throat, shaven-headed Duke of Norfolk – but the standout is certainly Cate Blanchett’s titular role.

Must confess, I have a soft spot for Gwynie, but I can’t deny Blanchett was robbed at the ’98 Oscars, the Best Actress gong should certainly have gone to the Antipodean powerhouse ahead of Paltrow’s charming turn in Shakespeare In Love. Elizabeth’s transformation from innocent, religious, loyal princess to hard, ruthless and stoic monarch is damned impressive – not much less regal, in fact, than that of Helen Mirren’s performance as the next Queen Elizabeth to take her place on the throne of England, to be seen, of course, in that other more recent, but just as must-see Brit flick The Queen.

On to Elizabeth: The Golden Age then. So, would this unquestionable follow-up film, coming nine years after the ‘original’, hit the innovative heights of the first? Would it achieve that same mix of grit, ‘realism’, historical accuracy and damn good historical yarn? In short, would it be as good? Well, no. It’s just not as cerebral, balanced, polished and overall satisfying an experience as Kapur and Blanchett’s first foray into Tudor high-society and political depravity. But it’s still an entertaining two-hour diversion, don’t get me wrong.

Undeniably, the script isn’t as smart and perceptive as the first film’s. Events revolve around Clive Owen’s Walter Raleigh and his time at court and the subsequent naval war against the Spanish Armada, which is all very well, but was Raleigh quite as omnipresent in the queen’s company as presented here, lurking in corridors and behind staircases? And did he truly have the monarch’s ear as much as he does here? And isn’t it surely too easy to present Spain’s king Philip II using the execution of Samantha Morton’s Mary Queen of Scots as an excuse for launching a religious war against Protestant England? I’m no expert, but surely the politics of the time was a little more complicated than that? And surely the king himself was a bit more complex a character than the Catholic zealot he’s presented as here?

Still, if you can overlook such points, then there’s much to enjoy in this effort. The visuals, costumes, sets and music are all impressively bold, faithful and stirring and the overall tone – if way too often – entertainingly bombastic, especially during the wartime last third. And, naturally, Blanchett delivers a fine performance as an older, wiser and more weary queen, looking to – and then resenting – a female favourite’s exploits for her own vicarious amorous experiences.

In the end, though, this flick will always strike me as a missed opportunity – it tells the story of the age of Raleigh, Drake and the Armada, but comes off as a bit of a cop-out. And that’s well summed up by Clive Owen as the rakish Raleigh. Yes, he looks perfect, but his acting simply isn’t; in fact, it just isn’t up to scratch. He’s too wooden here to generate any sort of charisma at all. There’s no way Blanchett’s sharp-as-a-razor Elizabeth would have made him the golden boy of her golden age, I’m afraid.

So, to sum up, it’s top marks for Elizabeth then, a film that’s a feast for the mind as much as the eyes; but a bit of a ‘meh’ for The Golden Age – Blanchett and the visuals are undeniably winning, the rest though, unlike the English ships in the Channel, not so much. 

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