“I will live right until the end”
Whereas Elizabeth told a tale of royalty and the politics underlying every action to gain power, Elizabeth: The Golden Age weaves the story of how that strength survives. Michael Hirst gets help this time from the capable William Nicholson to explain what happens once the queen has proven her worth. The country has accepted her, yet many Catholic dissenters hide behind Mary Stuart, looking for an overthrow. Outside her kingdom sees Spain reviling her crown, standing against the God they hold dear. King Philip has a plan that will use Elizabeth’s most trusted advisors’ loyalty against her. This is a time where religion hangs over everything heavily. One cannot become a leader without God’s acceptance and one cannot start a war without that permission either. As a result, the story starts off at a subtle pace, slowly unraveling the conspiracies at play, to later crank up the suspense for a war that will shape the world as we know it today.
The years between the two films has seen director Shekhar Kapur hone his skills and develop an aesthetic much flashier here than its predecessor. Yes, he had the majesty of set and wardrobe in the first film, but here he takes it to the next level. Elizabeth begins in power; therefore she must show off her royal beauty. The movie can be seen as one of over-extravagance, but I don’t think it ever goes too far. Kapur’s attention to detail should be commended, and while the visuals are stunning and at times overwhelming, they never are at the detriment to the story being told. This can’t quite be said about the cinematography. He appears to be a bit over his head on composition, giving us many instances that beg the question, why did he do that? One such moment, at the end, shows Geoffrey Rush (reprising his role of Walsingham to much the same accomplishment) lying on his bed through a pinhole gap in the ceiling. The screen is black besides the small opening with its blurred edges. Not only is it strange, but it lasts for only about five seconds before cutting back to a normal vantage point. Another example is of the queen standing to the left of the screen while a column fills the other five-sixths. She isn’t even showed in full, but allows a bit of her dress to go behind the obstruction. Awkward moments like this seem out of place and take the viewer out of the work—a little misguided auteur-ism.
I can’t fault him too much for these transgressions, as there are just as many instances of pure beauty. From Sir Walter Raleigh swimming underwater while ships burn above him to the execution of Mary Stuart, Kapur gives his share of emotionally stunning sequences. Give him a weighty score and the ability to film in slow motion and let him do his thing. Even the many times he portrays metaphors and allusions to faith and God are done so with a deft hand. The shadow of religion covering most of the proceedings help allow him to get away with it, as that was a standard of the time, but he never lets them become too heavy-handed or laughably easy. I also give him credit for knowing his limits and instead of showing horrid action/war scenes, he holds back to only shoot the destruction the war creates. Maybe it was his experience with battles on the critically panned Four Feathers (I can’t weigh in here as I haven’t seen the film), but his masking the fighting with only explosions and aftermath works effectively.
Just as with Elizabeth, The Golden Age’s aesthetic, great as it is, only equals the acting on display. With both Rush and Cate Blanchett returning, one could not ask for more. Blanchett shows her strength at all times while also letting a bit of her dreams for a normal life seep through. When she is with her favorite “lady in waiting” Bess, a nice turn from Abbie Cornish, or alone with Raleigh, her true self shows through the façade of stoic leadership. She longs for a love affair, but not so much that she would sacrifice the people she rules. Her ability to hold to her word that she will protect everyone of England, no matter their religious preference and to even go to the front lines while they fight for her, (a nice scene even if the speech was a tad lackluster) shows her humanity and greatness.
Kapur has assembled another dream cast of British stars to support his lead. Clive Owen, as Raleigh, is the perfect amount of charisma and self-assured defiance needed to make his role believable. In order to have the queen’s full respect, he had to stand up for himself no matter what she might do as a result. Samantha Morton is fantastic as Mary Stuart. The role is somewhat of a MacGuffin, but effective nonetheless; hopefully she will take more roles as the villain in the future. She is a great actress and it’s nice to see her branch out of the heroine mode. There are many other familiar faces, all doing an admirable job to keep appearances up for this wonderful period piece. One more of notice, however, is the almost unrecognizable Rhys Ifans. Completely gone is the goofiness I know him for from films such as Notting Hill and Human Nature. What a surprise he is playing the Jesuit priest on a mission from Spain that no one quite knows until it is too late.
Following up on a film that is highly regarded and boasting of a star-making performance is no easy feat. Add to its difficulty the fact that the first was probably not created with thoughts of a sequel as it ends with an epilogue of text for which this new entry shows us. Thankfully Kapur stayed with Hirst to continue the tale correctly and seamlessly, even injecting some welcome comedy at the start, easing us into the extravagant world of the British court. The story of England during the sixteenth century is a very intriguing one and this film only helps to enhance the public awareness of it and to keep it alive in our consciousness.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age 8/10 | ★ ★ ★
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival