Elizabeth: The Golden Age



This review was written for the festival screening of "Elizabeth: The Golden Age."

Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO -- Queen Bess is back in fine form in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," the second of a potential three-part historical romance about England's Virgin Queen. Cate Blanchett has lost none of the brio that earned her an Oscar nom for 1998's "Elizabeth." Nor has returning director Shekhar Kapur toned down any of the energetic camera moves, pageantry or vivid colors he deployed to reformulate historical drama in the original movie. This is history writ large, presented in terms of larger-than-life personalities rather than changing political, social and religious climates. It's robust historical fiction, designed as movie spectacle, which calls out to toss aside dusty history books and join the fun.

Remnants remain from Hollywood's own golden age of historical drama. A musical score by Craig Armstrong and AR Rahman is virtually a character itself, huffing and puffing through nearly every scene, provoking tension and calling characters to action. Resplendent costumes, grand sets build in England's Shepperton Studios and architecturally magnificent locations all give a feeling of majesty. So the second "Elizabeth" movie should appeal to a broad age range, as did its predecessor. This unabashedly romantic epic from Working Title and Universal looks set to deliver boxoffice gold.

The good queen is now in her third decade of rule. No longer a young girl struggling to learn the ruthless ways of court life, Elizabeth is thoroughly at home with flattering wooers, fawning sycophants and courtly spectacle. (Indeed, with Kapur at the helm, her court looks like a circus with exotic humans, wild animals and nimble dancers vying for her pleasure.)

Storm clouds gather across the English Channel in Spain where King Philip II (Jordi Molla) assembles his Catholic forces to free England from its Protestant queen. This marks the filmmakers' attempt to contemporize 16th century European conflicts in a model resembling our modern struggle with religious fundamentalism. Elizabeth is seen here as the leader of the forces of enlightenment and liberality -- which is not entirely inaccurate -- against the religious intolerance and barbarism of the Spanish Inquisition.

In Michael Hirst (who wrote the first movie) and William Nicholson's screenplay, Elizabeth is a woman of action and sharp words rather than the historical Elizabeth, a notorious ditherer -- who nevertheless was a shrewd politician and social engineer -- and a ruler whose motto was "I see and keep silent."

Her circle of advisors has been reduced to one, the great spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham (a returning Geoffrey Rush). Her romantic interest falls on a person who was indeed a favorite courtier yet one historical gossip usually omits from her list of alleged lovers, the dashing explorer and author Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen).

The writers have moved up Raleigh's clandestine affair and marriage to lady-in-waiting Bess Throkmorton (Abbie Cornish) by several years so it can coincide with the legendary English defeat of the Spanish Armada. Raleigh plays a huge (and historically unlikely) role in this version of that battle but one that fits in well with the escalating drama of the Queen's personal and public crises.

That naval battle, recreated through all manner of movie trickery from digital effects to underwater action, is wonderfully staged and not too elaborate. (End credits even mention the use of footage from David Lean's "Ryan's Daughter," possibly those mighty waves crashing on a dark, rocky shore.) Blanchett in her glistening body armor astride a fine stallion overlooking the sea, delivering a great rally speech to the troops, gives the movie its most resplendent moment of sheer majesty.

Yet whether in her bath or glaring at underlings, Blanchett has made this Queen her own, a woman of fierce independence and thought, who only in her most private moments yearns for the male touch that she must deny herself. For virginity is part of her statecraft.

Rush is wily and self-contained as the spymaster while Owen as Sir Walter channels a toned down yet still quite debonair Errol Flynn. Cornish comes off a little too sweet and reserved for the rebellious Bess. The film never finds a way to fully utilize Samantha Morton as the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots, and fudges Walsingham's own possible role in Mary's "treason."

All in all, it's a grand package of hearty acting, design and action with the only caveat being that unlike the first film this "Elizabeth" can no longer surprise us with its modern twists.

Universal Pictures
Working Title Films

Director: Shekhar Kapur
Writers: Michael Hirst, William Nicholson
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Jonathan Cavendish
Executive producers: Debra Haywood, Liza Chasin, Michael Hirst
Director of photography: Remi Adefarasin
Production designer: Guy Hendrix Dyas
Costume designer: Alexandra Byrne
Music: Craig Armstrong, AR Rahman
Editor: Jill

Elizabeth: Clate Blanchett
Sir Francis Walsingham: Geoffrey Rush
Sir Walter Raleigh: Clive Owen
Bess Throkmorton: Abbie Cornish
Mary: Samantha Morton
Robert Reston: Rhyr Ifans
King Philip II: Jordi Molla

MPAA rating PG-13, running time 115 minutes