Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Director: Shekhar Kapur. Cast: Cate Blanchett, Clive Owen, Abbie Cornish, Geoffrey Rush, Jordi Molla, Rhys Ifans, Samantha Morton, William Houston, Adam Godley, Tom Hollander, Eddie Redmayne, Susan Lynch, Aimee King. Screenplay: William Nicholson and Michael Hirst.

Photo © 2007 Universal Pictures/Working Title Films
The CGI Spanish Armada sinks into the CGI water. That's how this thing ends, or nearly so. Some cuts imply that Queen Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett), unwigged, and therefore more thoughtful and somehow True, observes her country's victory from some sort of castle window, but not long before, she seemed to be leading a CGI army on the southern coast of England, and in between she's found a lot of time to stand on her big map of Europe with her palms outstretched and all the royal fans turned on High. So I'm not sure where she actually is. I suspect that Elizabeth does not watch the Armada sink from her castle window, but that she telepathically absorbs their defeat as an Inner Message, in the same way Mariah banged out the words to "Reflections (Care Enough)" at her piano while her boyfriend, across town, wrote the music for the same song in Glitter. Elizabeth is Mariah, and Clive Owen, against every Newtonian law of Stardom Conservation, is somehow Max Beesley, swinging along riggings and diving into the green sea. A horse swims over top of him. Chagall, y'all. The movie has a bit more twisting and turning to do before it actually ends, with Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, coddling a baby in her arms and fading into the glaring whiteness of failed irony. Then she stands on her map again and turns all the fans back on, but this time she fades to black. Some captions prove informative. I didn't write them down, because bringing along a notebook to Elizabeth: The Golden Age would be like bringing along a tape recorder to interview your dog. So, I can only paraphrase: The defeat of the Spanish Armada went down as one of the worst humiliations in Spanish naval history. Seems awfully qualified to me, in the manner of "the fall of the Bastille was one of the largest-scale destructions of a Parisian prison in French history." But there you go. Also: England, under Elizabeth's reign, entered a time of peace and prosperity. Which sounds an awful lot like...a golden age. Tristram Shandy-like, the movie ends just when it's caught itself up to its promised beginning, so perhaps, like Sterne's novel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a crafty metaphysical and rhetorical masterpiece, and its surface appearance as a jewel-toned, bovine, blender-edited, overdressed nightmare of a Wigstock festival is but a clever disguise.

But no, I'm pretty sure that the movie is ridiculous, and that among its endless list of wrong choices and confused agendas, it simply adopted the wrong title. There's a lot of that going around, but let's be generous. Let's close our eyes, think of England, and even though we wouldn't know the first thing about directing or producing or picking the proper lens, and even though we weren't around to feed the composer his Ritalin or to remind Abbie Cornish that she isn't playing a stoner in this movie, let's help where we can and endow Elizabeth: The Golden Age with the title it deserves. I have several suggestions.

Elizabeth: Full Throttle. That's a good title, especially if you're aiming to hurtle your audience through way too many subplots involving a whole host of characters who are patently too numerous and patently too stupid. You wanna sprint your movie toward a big battle sequence, and get Lizzie all armored up and rocking her Agincourt, even if the accounting department already spent the money that would have been used to stage the actual battle? That's some full throttle. You wanna douse your movie in assassination plots, even though none of them will rouse a single image as memorable as that arrow nailing Elizabeth's sheer white curtain to the plank behind her head in Elizabeth: The Adolescent Years, not to mention Kelly MacDonald's Death by Poison Dress in the same film? You wanna festoon your whole movie in indigo ruching and gekko-colored satin, and give Cate Blanchett a sea anemone to wear as a hat, and butterfly nets as shoulder pads? There's something to be said for treating the risible, platitudinous, choppy, utterly unhistorical, and catfighty script as an arbitrary breeding ground for an Elizabethan Xtravaganza. Just don't expect the music or the camera angles to cede the spotlight so easily, even if the art directors and the flummoxed actors are more than happy to throw in the brocaded, papaya-colored, royal-monogrammed towel. Leave no dress behind, and no narrative spiral unspiraled, and don't resolve any of them, so that the audience can choose our own adventures forever.

Elizabeth: The Heretic. That's a good title, especially since this Protestant queen is, in fact, spoiling the party of England's Catholics, just like she was in the last movie, and with the same screenwriting ambivalence about whether Elizabeth herself is devout in her Protestantism or just a non-denominational peacemaker who wants people to practice as they please. And you know whose style Elizabeth: The Heretic is really cramping? Mary, Queen of Scots, pops, and not just because so many of her dresses, unlike anyone else's, are made of black butcher paper. Mary, of course, is Elizabeth's own half-sister, although I suggest downplaying this fact, so that later, when slap-happy screenwriters William Nicholson and Michael Hirst have Elizabeth running to halt Mary's execution, in an endearing fit of cold feet, we aren't in danger of exploring Elizabeth's horror and ambivalence as in any way related to the family dynamic. She is free to regret this order simply as a tactical blunder, because now those testy Catholics have a martyr on their side. Meanwhile, Samantha Morton, looking lost and weirdly violet-filtered, gets furloughed from the film's rising tide of self-embarrassments before it really hits peak levels. Cate's gotta be pretty steamed that she can't find her own early-escape clause, but not steamed enough to get all those wrinkles and ruches out of her gowns.

Elizabeth: Dead Man's Chest or Elizabeth: At World's End. Those are both such good titles, so it's hard to choose, especially since Geoffrey Rush is hanging around this movie, albeit more as a gesture of casting continuity toward Elizabeth: What a Girl Wants than as a freestanding and fully functional character. We haven't forgotten how much Shekhar Kapur loves the Godfather movies, and how chirpily he purloined entire sequences from Coppola in order to cap Elizabeth: A New Hope, so I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that Geoffrey Rush's Michael Corleone turns up with his very own Fredo to pity and play with over the course of this movie. As little sense as I have of how Elizabeth has spent the nearly thirty years since the last movie, besides dunking herself every night into a chilled tub of anti-aging creme, I have even less sense of how Rush's Sir Francis Walsingham has senesced from the smart, sidewinding, and tacitly boy-loving advisor of the first film to the tired, myopic non-entity of this one. Three decades of empire-building will probably do that to you, but surely Blanchett and Rush, who have a working rapport to build on and a little more experience getting around Kapur's delirious direction, could have handled some more intimate and edifying scenes before she's suddenly kissing him on his cold, white forehead? Also, re: Dead Man's Chest, there are pirates in this movie, and also giant boats, which brings me to...

Elizabeth 2: Cruise Control. I'm not sure about this title. That Armada just isn't exciting enough to hang the movie on, and not just because its fate is already so well-known to the audience, and the Spaniards on board are never entitled to the sort of loser's-side point of view that might have (!) expanded our sense of that notorious folly or (!!!) challenged our assumption of Elizabeth herself as vaunted heroine of her own Bollywood-colored legend. So I'm not sure about Cruise Control, even as a description of Kapur's directing style. The Four Feathers? That was a little bit cruise control. But I submit that you have to be On, in some definition of the term, to think of a scene where Elizabeth stands over Walter Raleigh's shoulder and commands him to drive his hand right into Bess Throckmorton's crotch in just the right way to achieve the perfect volta lift. Drama like that doesn't just arrive, unbidden, on autopilot. Shekhar is working. Whether Walter, Bess, Clive, or Abbie is the most humiliated by this moment remains an open competition. Blanchett, meanwhile, takes the Faye-Dunaway-in-Mommie Dearest route, which means saving herself from drowning and keeping us all awake by grandstanding and underlining, and sometimes just quaking with unintelligible emotion. I'm not sure that's "control," and it's certainly not "cruise control."

Elizabeth: Book of Shadows. That's an inscrutable title, but then, despite all the peacock kerfluffery Kapur can conjure, this remains an inscrutable film, in intent as well as execution. Why orient The Golden Age around an interlude when Elizabeth's reign is so deeply and darkly challenged? More than that, why direct our attention away from the fascinating process of Elizabeth making herself known to her people and felt within her world, and instead frame the narrative around two crucibles—the showdown with Mary and the showdown with Spain—that have been so exhaustively rehearsed in other movies (to say nothing of other writing, other drama, other everything)? Why repeat so many of the same tropes of religious turf-war, assassination plots, and sexual jealousy that Kapur's first installment already leaned on so heavily? Obviously they never dissipated as challenges to Elizabeth, but they've certainly diminished themselves as dramatic devices, since Kapur and Blanchett and Hirst have already had their fill of all of them by now. Even the volta has been pretty worn out as a target for spectacle or as a vehicle for characterization through movement, and if you've forgotten how much of Elizabeth devoted itself to this dance, Kapur reprises some footage to remind you. Blanchett, blocked in most of her attempts to dig into Elizabeth or connect with the period, does what she can to show us a smarter but also a coarser woman who has replaced the strawberry-blonde neophyte of the first movie, and since I've always regarded that first performance as eminently improvable, I wasn't uninterested to watch her delve back into the part with almost ten years' more experience in front of the camera to lead her way. Unfortunately, now that she's a more agile psychologist and a more flexible stylist than she was in 1998, Kapur strands her amid a film that only wants to gaze at her and derealize her and hyperbolize her and subtly degrade her and dress and undress her. Blanchett, just like Elizabeth herself, has become an unquestioned ideal within the universe of Elizabeth: Book of Shadows, filling the space where a great and admired actress is presumed to be. Would that the film really wanted a performance, instead of a stitched-together fashion show of moods and comportments, gaudily embellished with obscure conspiracies, hazy alliances, clichéd gender politics, and an unfathomable urge to give Elizabeth the baby she never had. Kapur has made a parade float instead of a film, turned most of his cast into effigies instead of actors, enlisted hackwork from his most talented technical artists, and trivialized history as glibly as the first film did, only without the pop conviction that oozed from Elizabeth in its best scenes and in its spirited if shallow mise-en-scène. It's a pep rally with no spirit and no particular audience, a drag show that's uncomfortably kitschy instead of inventively campy. A star vehicle that dares to go back to square one, many years after the first film's flare of success, only to discover that it has nothing new to say, no one worth meeting to introduce us to, and surprisingly little sense of what counts as a coherent film sequence. Blanchett will go on, but Kapur's career may easily be kaput. He's bet the whole farm, and lost it, on an absurd script and tired visual ideas and a star who, even in her most diplomatic interviews, has sounded half-enthused at best.

Elizabeth: Risk Addiction. Everyone wagers badly. Everyone flaunts their own worst habits, though some of them cannot be blamed for doing as their dealer director commanded. The Armada loses, but then so does Elizabeth, and so does everyone else. D+

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett
Best Costume Design: Alexandra Byrne

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Drama): Cate Blanchett

Other Awards:
Satellite Awards: Best Production Design (Guy Dyas); Best Costume Design (Alexandra Byrne)

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