Judge Gordon Sullivan shakes the sphere of costume drama with his criticisms of this historical ehhh pic.
Our review of Elizabeth: The Golden Age, published February 11th, 2008, is also available.
Woman. Warrior. Queen.
As befits a film about Renaissance England, I'll open with a bastardization of the Bard:
Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a tale
Facts of the Case
Since we last left Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth), things have not been going well. Her country is divided by religion, low on funds, and drawing the wrath of the most powerful empire in the world, Catholic Spain. Plots that seek her death abound, and Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush, Quills) warns that there is trouble from the North in the form of Mary Stuart, next in line for the throne. To trouble the queen on a personal level, sailor, explorer, and sometimes pirate Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen, Sin City) appears at court with burning eyes and talk of rich, virgin lands. Beset again from all sides, Elizabeth must navigate her country to peace and prosperity.
I feel like I'm one of the few who didn't fawn over the original Elizabeth. I thought the costumes were fantastic and the supporting cast note-perfect (with special nods going to Vincent Cassel and Christopher Eccleston), but the story of Elizabeth herself just didn't work for me. I can accept the queen as a real woman who finds love, but it's hard to believe that, commanding a country, she would fall victim to the adolescent excesses in which the film revels. I looked on the sequel as another opportunity to see pretty costumes, and in that light the film did not disappoint. Sadly, the supporting cast this time around seems less strong, and none of the problematic aspects of the first film have been reworked for Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
From first shot to last, this is a gorgeous movie. The historical locations are brimming with fine detail and exceptional artistry. The costumes are lavish, sometimes ridiculously so, but they are obviously crafted with exceptional attention to detail. The entire cast looks comfortable both in the setting and the costumes, an admirable feat considering how easy it would be to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the surroundings. The costumes and setting are the high point of the film. Everything else succeeds only in part, if at all.
The major fault of the film lies in the writing. Overall, the script lacks tension and drama. The plot has three main threads—the assassination attempt, Raleigh as the love interest, and the threat of the Spanish Armada—but none of them hold any surprises. Even the most casual student of history will know that an assassin didn't kill Elizabeth and that the Spanish Armada was all but annihilated before they were a significant threat to England. Those who saw the first film will know that any romantic entanglements won't work out for Elizabeth, so all three threads needed to work overtime to overcome the audience's awareness of their outcome. The script just doesn't work that hard. Instead, plot point after plot point is revealed, with no mind towards tension, or even creating a sense of inevitability or destiny for the queen. But even as it fails, the film's script fails big, throwing in three of the larger personalities of the middle part of Elizabeth's reign: Mary Stuart, Walter Raleigh, and Phillip II. The presence of all these figures doesn't quite obscure the lack of drama, but the writers get points for trying.
However the writers lose major points for their dialogue. It seems like they were going for a slightly stylized pseudo-Early Modern English, like Shakespeare-lite. To give an actress like Cate Blanchett lines like "England has my heart, must it also have my soul" strikes me as insulting. I guess most of the lines are supposed to sound grand and romantic, but they come off as bombastic but shallow. When the writers had the chance to use some of Elizabeth's own words, the justly famous "Speech to the Troops at Tilbury," they totally eviscerate her work, keeping a few lines and replacing the rest with melodramatic drivel. One of my highest hopes for the film was to hear Cate Blanchett deliver the famous "I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too" line. Instead, she sits astride a twitchy horse and gives a third-rate version of the Braveheart "freedom" speech.
Despite the lackluster dialogue, the cast strives mightily to bring some sincerity to their roles. I've seen a number of portrayals of Elizabeth, from Bette Davis to Helen Mirren, and Cate Blanchett's performance is the most "method" I've seen. She brings a conviction and an ease to the role that is remarkable. She doesn't seem to be performing so much as being, despite the misguided script and dialogue. Plus, anyone who can manage not to get lost under her wardrobe deserves some kudos.
Also reprising a role from the original Elizabeth is Geoffrey Rush as Sir Francis Walshingham. This time out we get to see his family, as well as some of the toll his job has taken on him. These are some of the best moments in the film, but they are slightly less fun to watch than the more wolfish portrayal of Walshingham in the first film. I would rather have seen a pair of films about Walshingham, the father of modern espionage, if Rush would reprise the role.
The big newcomer to this film is Clive Owen as Walter Raleigh, the notorious explorer/pirate and favorite of Elizabeth. This was, by far, my least favorite performance from Owen. For most of the film he's given nothing to do but make puppy eyes at Elizabeth, and that's a phenomenal waste. When he gets some dialogue he fairs better, but that doesn't happen often enough. It doesn't help at all that his makeup kept changing, so his complexion went from overly swarthy to tan and back from scene to scene. He should have been the shot in the arm the production needed, but instead he's wasted in a role that gets drowned out by other elements of the production.
The rest of the cast does an able, if unremarkable, job in the film. Abbie Cornish is fine as Bess Throckmorton, the rival for Raleigh's affections. With more screen time she could have really done something with the role. Jordi Mollè has the wild-eyed paranoia he displayed towards the end of Blow, which makes for an interesting interpretation of Phillip II's religious zeal. Samantha Morton, as Mary Stuart, looks like she just walked off the set of a David Lynch feature. She's given very little to do other than wait to die, but she brings some dignity to that small role.
Before I discuss the specifics of the HD DVD, I'd like to take a moment to discuss the Spanish Armada in the film. It just wasn't made to withstand the kind of scrutiny that HD allows. Compared to the Armada in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, every sea battle in the Pirates of the Caribbean films look like the height of reality—even the one against the Kraken. With the clarity of HD, the ships look gauzy and don't blend well with their background. When the nautical material isn't CGI, it looks unimpressive because the blue screen process is incongruous, taking the viewer out of the reality of the scene. I know the film is relatively low-budget, so a full-on Armada was never in the cards, but it would have been better to leave it all to the viewer's imagination rather than give them this goofy-looking stuff. Also, the scenes with the Armada were some of the most poorly edited battle scenes I've ever encountered, confusing and lacking in the same drama and tension as the rest of the plot.
Despite my feelings towards the Armada scenes, this film is wonderfully rendered on HD DVD. From the texture of fabric to the texture of tapestries and other wall art, the video captures the obvious attention to artistic detail in the film. Yes, the obviously CGI stuff looks horrible, but the rest of the film is gorgeous. I found one moment where I noticed grain looking like video noise, but the rest of the transfer is technically spot-on. The audio is also near-perfect, with the bombastic dialogue and music perfectly audible with no distortion or balance issues. More than many period dramas, this film was made for HD presentation.
The extras are a much more modest affair than the feature. They open with nine minutes of deleted scenes, most of which I would rather have seen back in the movie, as they flesh out some of the relationships between the central characters. The bulk of the extras are taken up by four featurettes that cover various aspects of the production, totaling roughly 40 minutes of information. They deal with everything from the transition between the first Elizabeth and the sequel to the creation of the rich visuals, including the Armada. While not the most informative behind the scenes material I've encountered, these featurettes do a good job of informing the curious viewer. Kapur also provides a commentary, discussing the themes he sees in the material, as well as technical material. His voice is easy to listen to, and it's good to hear what he was trying to do with the film, since it is in such stark contrast to what I took away from it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although the numbers seem to be on my side (as of this writing Elizabeth: The Golden Age took in about half as much as its predecessor), there is an audience who will appreciate this film. Those who love detailed costumes and are willing to overlook the problems with plot and dialogue will find a gorgeous film to get lost in. Furthermore, fans of history will find much to argue about concerning the film's interpretation of Elizabeth and her reign.
Ultimately, this film feels like a rote recitation of historical incidents, with nothing new revealed about the past and no connections made to the present. Although it's big and beautiful, it's also very empty, much like the cathedrals it so frequently features.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age is found not guilty for its technical merits. The court files a restraining order against Kapur on Elizabeth's behalf.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Shekhar Kapur
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