Judge Ben Saylor can command the winds too; he just chooses not to. Big deal.
Our review of Elizabeth: The Golden Age (HD DVD), published February 5th, 2008, is also available.
The 1998 film Elizabeth was an excellent drama that brought together a strong lead performance from Cate Blanchett as the newly crowned monarch; deft supporting turns from Geoffrey Rush, Joseph Fiennes, and Richard Attenborough; a crackling script full of intrigue by Michael Hirst; and the sharp directorial guidance of Shekhar Kapur. Nearly 10 years later, Kapur re-teamed with Hirst, Blanchett, and Rush for Elizabeth: The Golden Age, a bright, flashy, and bombastic sequel that falls considerably short of its predecessor in more ways than one.
Facts of the Case
England, 1585. Queen Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett, The Good German) is in a precarious position. Despite the urgings of her trusted advisor Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush, Munich), she has not married. Her country is being threatened by Catholic Spain, whose zealot king, Philip II (Jordi Mollà), wants to bring holy war upon England. A conspiracy involving Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton, Control) also looms. Furthermore, the Queen finds herself charmed by adventurer and privateer Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen, Shoot 'Em Up). War, conspiracy, and a hunky explorer. What's a girl to do?
When a sequel is made to a blockbuster-type movie such as Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the general rule is that everything has to Be Bigger. This axiom, as it turns out, doesn't really work with a movie like Elizabeth. Unfortunately, Kapur has taken it upon himself to send the spectacle factor through the roof for this second installment, ruining much of what was good about the original.
First, there is the script. Michael Hirst, who wrote the first film and also scripted the Showtime series The Tudors, co-wrote Elizabeth: The Golden Age with William Nicholson. Their script feels like a mini-series (or at least a much longer film) crammed into a one hour and 46 minute (sans credits) movie. There simply isn't enough time to develop the multi-threaded storyline in an appropriate manner; the film hurtles along at a breakneck speed, never allowing the characters (or the audience) to catch their breath. Case in point: Near the end of the film (mild spoiler), the Queen throws Raleigh in jail. In a matter of minutes in screen time, he is released (end spoiler). It's difficult to develop character relationships in a film that has so much crammed into so little time, and the Elizabeth-Raleigh-Bess (one of the Queen's ladies, played by Abbie Cornish) love triangle particularly suffers here.
Even if the film had been longer, the script would still be problematic if issues of characterization had not been solved. The Elizabeth of this movie is strong-willed but also mercurial and deeply insecure, which, if that were all she was, wouldn't be bad. Unfortunately, she regresses to her teen years whenever Raleigh comes calling. I'm not up on my history, but I don't think the real Elizabeth would have acted around Raleigh as modern-day girls do at the sight of, say, Zac Efron. When she's not mooning, she's forced to deliver lots of forceful dialogue set to one of the most ridiculously over-the-top musical scores I've ever heard.
It gets worse. The script utterly wastes the talents of three of today's top actors: Geoffrey Rush, Clive Owen, and Samantha Morton. Rush's Walsingham was one of the strongest elements of Elizabeth, but here, he's been shunted to the sidelines. Rush gives the role his all, but when it comes down to it, he's given very little to do this time around. Owen, on the other hand, has ample screen time, but the dialogue he's given is often silly (like his presentation of New World wonders to the Queen), and his overplaying of the role doesn't help. As many have already said, his character is an Errol Flynn type of the kind who swashbuckled their way through movies of yore, and it's hard to take that kind of character seriously here. Lastly, Morton's Mary, Queen of Scots, had the potential to be a very complex character based on the brief glimpses of her we get in this movie, but the filmmakers don't seem to be very interested in her, unfortunately. It's a pity an actress of Morton's talent was so underused.
The script's rushed pace affects the look of the film, as Kapur's scenes are too fast and filled with too many cuts. The director uses so many different camera angles within a single scene that I thought maybe a decaffeinated Tony Scott had taken over the shoot. Clearly, a lot went into this movie in terms of sets and costuming, but what's the use of going to all that effort when the camera keeps cutting? Kapur knows how to compose a good shot, but holding one is another matter. It's too bad editor Jill Bilcock didn't reign the director in here.
Also, I have to agree with my colleague Judge Gordon Sullivan about the Spanish Armada battle at the end of the film. This is not a well-put together sequence at all; the editing is confusing, the effects are bad, and everything happens too abruptly. Considering that much of the film builds to this scene, the result is a huge letdown.
Universal's standard DVD of Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a very sharp disc; cinematographer Remi Adefarasin's lush, vibrant color palette is well rendered here, and the dark scenes are easy to make out as well. The sound brings out both the dialogue and Craig Armstrong and A.R. Rahman's score nicely. As for extras, there is a smattering of featurettes: "Towers, Courts, and Cathedrals" takes a closer look at the historic locations used for the film; "Commanding the Winds: Creating the Armada" covers the efforts undertaken by the crew to construct a real-life ship and CGI ones for the climactic Spanish Armada sequence; and "Inside Elizabeth's World" goes into the film's production design. These are O.K. but nothing remarkable. There is also a making-of featurette that runs approximately 11 minutes, as well as a handful of deleted scenes, all of which I would have included in this too-short film. Finally, there is a feature commentary with Shekar Kapur, who goes into great detail about his intentions with the film and what he hoped to accomplish. While some of his comments seem off the mark, the commentary is still an enjoyable listen.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While I don't think an Oscar nomination was warranted here (the Academy overlooked other, better performances), Cate Blanchett is never less-than compelling in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Yes, her character is not nearly as interesting here as it was in the first film, and the dialogue she is asked to deliver is decidedly lackluster, but the actress rises above these elements to deliver a forceful and fiery performance. Blanchett really is one of the preeminent actresses working today, and it's always a pleasure to watch her disappear into role after eclectic role.
Also, even with Kapur's endless camera setups, the film's gorgeous cinematography manages to shine through. Remi Adefarasin (Match Point) really does a first-class job working with lots of different colors. Much of the film is brightly lit, but Adefarasin handles the dark scenes skillfully as well. While I prefer the darker look of Elizabeth, the sequel is still a good-looking movie.
Going along with the cinematography, production designer Guy Dyas and Alexandra Byrne's costumes need to be saluted. The locations in this film are truly breathtaking; they're almost more interesting to look at than the actors. And as can be expected with a film of this kind, the costumes are ornate and fun to look at.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age is so obsessed with its own grandeur that it fails to be an emotionally engaging film. Shekhar Kapur's work here is a classic case of style over substance. The first film managed to contain lavish costumes, scenery chewing, and an intriguing plot without losing sight of its very human protagonist. This does not happen in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, an unsubtle film that shouts and wrings its hands but ultimately has very little to say.
The cast and cinematographer are free to go, but Kapur and his writers are sentenced to watch the first film until they figure out what they did wrong with this one.
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Scales of Justice
• Feature commentary with director Shekhar Kapur
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