Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Movie Review: "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" by David Pretty

Greetings, Lords and Ladies!

Duly impressed by the 1998 biopic Elizabeth, I was certainly predisposed to watching a sequel.  This past weekend, I finally got around to watching the 2007 successor Elizabeth: The Golden Age and all I have to say is:

"We are not amused." 

Yeah, I know wrong monarch, but hey, when the crown fits...

Actually, I got a helluva lot more to say then that.  Here, watch this pretty, shiny trailer while I try and rally my sleep-deprived thoughts...


Elizabeth mainly dealt with the young monarch's tumultuous rise to power and her painful transition from naive humanitarian to an iron-willed head of state.  Although the first film certainly threw it's share of crisis at the Virgin Queen, it was all designed to showcase her progression as a leader and underscore the message that power and authority can calcify the soul.  

She certainly faces her fair share of new challenges in The Golden Age.  King Phillip of Spain (Jordi Molla) is looking to conquer England and liberate the poor, oppressed Catholic souls laboring under the auspices of a heretical Protestant Queen.  Prior to the invasion, a Spanish-backed assassination plot employing the clueless Anthony Babington (Eddie Redmayne) begins to percolate.  Meanwhile, Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) tryies to contend with her exiled cousin, Mary Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton).  Elizabeth refuses to persecute her Catholic countrymen, despite the fact that many of them consider Mary to be the legitimate heir to her throne.   

To combat Mary's bid for power, Elizabeth's world-weary yet ruthless advisor Sir Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) begins pressuring the Queen to find a man and start spitting out potential heirs post haste.  Unfortunately the incessant parade of 16'th century Poindexters, including the particularly dweeby Archduke of Austria (Christian Brassington), all fail to light a fire under her royal appointments.  

That is until her court is visited by a certain legendary seafarer.  Turns out the Spanish are also being baited by explorer, privateer and Elizabethan Han Solo impersonator, Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen).  Apparently ol' Walt's been raiding Spanish ships at every opportunity, looking to fund another expedition back to the New World (where he's already named a town Virginia in a clear example of ass-kissery).  After regaling the Queen with tales of exploration and presenting her with gifts of tobacco (!), potatoes (!!) and two very confused Indians (!!!), Elizabeth becomes smitten with the scruffy-looking nerf-herder.  

But both of them are acutely aware that there's no way they can reconcile their mutual feelings for one another.  Raleigh mourns this Catch 22 for about fifteen minutes before banging Elizabeth's primary Lady-Who's-Clearly-Not-Keen-On-Waiting "Bess" Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish).  When Elizabeth learns about their clandestine relationship she proceeds to loseth her shite in a very un-regal fashion.

Which brings me to my main problem with Elizabeth: The Golden Age: the introduction of Raleigh instantly unravels two good solid hours of previously established character growth for Elizabeth.  As soon as the explorer's relationship with Bess is exposed, the stoic Virgin Queen suddenly degenerates into the sort of shrill harpy only seen on The Real Housewives of Orange County.  It seems like a huge disservice to such a regal and dignified character.   

With Elizabeth suddenly acting like she's off her meds, the incessant crisis parade becomes nowhere near as impactful as it was in the first film.  After all, in Elizabeth, the Queen seemed to mature, learn and grow in the face of each new challenge.  Here, the script's bloated bombardment of Machiavellian chicanery sees Elizabeth become more wilting then stalwart.  When Raleigh asks her: "Since when were you so afraid?" it's almost as if he's inquiring on behalf of the audience.  Honestly, the regression is so pronounced that it makes her eleventh hour return to form pretty implausible. 

The usually capable William Hirst really really struggles to cram the surfeit of historical detail into the film's one-hundred and fourteen minute run time.  It's almost as if Hirst started playing fast and loose with the facts as soon as he realized just how much ground he had to cover in so short a time.  Sure, Elizabeth had it's inaccuracies but there are some real dillies in The Golden Age.  It was particularly egregious to witness Sir Walter Raleigh almost single-handedly destroy the CGI Spanish fleet with all the cunning of Captain Jack Sparrow in a Pirates of the Caribbean flick.  To add insult to injury, Sir Francis Drake is relegated to a Second Banana role in the event.     

But the film certainly isn't a complete right-off.  Cate Blanchett is still fabulous, even when the script pushes her into hysterics.  Admittedly I really dug the scene where the Spanish ambassador threatens her with "There is a wind coming, Madame, that will sweep away your pride" and Elizabeth fires back:

"I, too, can command the wind, sir! I have a hurricane in me that will strip Spain bare when you dare to try me!" 

In fact, all the performances are great.  Geoffrey Rush has a sickly, crocodilian quality throughout the film that makes him compulsively watchable.  Clive Owen is so charmingly roguish and swashbuckle-y that even I'd be tempted to sleep with him.  Speaking of sleeping with someone, it's not hard to see why Raleigh found the charms of Abbie Cornish as Elizabeth Throckmorton to be completely irresistible.

And it's not just the actors who look pretty.  Like every other Shekhar Kapur project, the film looks rich and opulent in a manner befitting a Queen's real environs.  The costumes are both elaborate and authentic.  Elizabeth's war room, her main audience chamber and Old St. Paul's cathedral all look stunning.  And although it's historically shaky, the use of Eilean Donan Castle in Scotland was a welcome nod to Mary's place of exile.    

Kapur and his highly adept Cinematographer Remi Adefarasin (who also shot Elizabeth) have delivered a film rife with color and moody lighting.  They also succeed in injecting a tremendous amount of verve into the film with a series of fascinating POV shots.  By employing an ominous low angle or humbling bird's eye view, each individual scene takes on a unique tonal ambiance.   

Honestly, Elizabeth: The Golden Years isn't a rotten film, it just suffers terribly when compared to the clarion voice and narrative thrust of its predecessor.  I really wish this cast and crew had reunited to do a simpler story, perhaps taking Elizabeth up to the cusp of Spanish invasion.  This could have allowed the screenwriters to deal more effectively with the Raleigh/Bess love triangle and the assassination subplot while retaining the perfect subject matter for a rousing finale. 

Instead what we get here is the costume drama equivalent of Spider-Man 3.    

Tilt: down.

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