The Washington Post, reviewing the recently released Elizabeth: The Golden Age sniffed that it is a costume drama without the drama. As I recall, the first movie had no lack of costumes either. I will grant the Washington Post film critic Desson Thomson that it is not quite as good a movie as the 1998 prequel, which I reviewed. However, this movie, made nine years after the first, does star the two who made the first movie so memorable: Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I and Geoffrey Rush as her trusted adviser Sir Francis Walsingham.
So, as the Post suggests, is it really making up for the lack of the drama with costumes? Thankfully, the answer is no, providing your idea of drama can embrace the conflicts within each of us. Granted, the story unfolds a bit slowly at times. There are times when the director seems more enamored with showing us what it was like for visiting dignitaries to meet the Queen back in the 16th century than to advance the plot. Often director Shekhar Kapur feels the need to prove he is creating cinema. He does this by ordering the camera to move. He seems particularly inclined to have the same camera circle Elizabeth, which coincidentally does show off her fabulous costumes. At other times Kapur seems to be channeling Steven Spielberg, making sure his heroic subjects are framed backlit or from low camera angles.
Thankfully, both Geoffrey Rush and Cate Blanchett can more than compensate for Kapur’s roaming camera and the occasionally wooden dialog. Both are exceptional actors who would be challenged doing poorly with any material. They do fine jobs picking up their parts after nine years.
The film documents the bleak period leading up to and including the Spanish Armada of 1588. At the cost of bankrupting his country, King Phillip II of Spain felt compelled to build a huge armada to invade Great Britain and end its Protestant apostasy. History teaches us that his failure was largely a result of bad luck rather than Queen Elizabeth’s sterling leadership. In 1588, the Royal Navy barely existed. As a result of the Spanish Armada, England would learn a powerful lesson: to survive it must be the nation that ruled the seas.
In this movie, we perhaps get too much screen time with the adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh. He shows up near the start of the film, to offer the land he colonized in the New World called Virginia to his Virgin Queen. At first, Elizabeth is not impressed by this man many on the court call a pirate. In time Sir Walter Raleigh, at least as he is portrayed in the movie, moves from being a curiosity of Elizabeth’s to an object of infatuation. She wishes he could be her lover. Yet even with her royal powers, she realizes that it is an impossibility. Raleigh’s true love is the sea, but his affections are for Elizabeth’s lady in waiting. She eventually succumbs to his roguish charms and bears his bastard child. We are treated to a fine performance from Ms. Blanchett as she shows Elizabeth’s wracking conflict from trying to reconcile her affection for Raleigh with her duties to the state and her jealousy. In many ways, this movie is far more about her impossible love interest in Sir Walter Raleigh than about her conflict with Spain. Since we know the outcome of the latter, how she reconciles the former is perhaps more interesting.
We also see plenty of Mary Stuart in this movie. Mary Stuart, Elizabeth’s cousin is a Catholic. She considers herself England’s true queen, since Elizabeth is presumed to be infertile. Because of her threat, she is imprisoned in a gilded cage of a castle. There she conspires to support the Spanish Armada and bring back the one true faith to her country. She eventually pays with her life for her treason. Samantha Morton does an exquisite job of portraying the papist Mary, Queen of Scots. Her portrayal is one excellent reason to see this movie.
Sir Walter Raleigh, played by Clive Owen, can be overshadowing. Raleigh is accurately portrayed as a man’s man, whose love is foremost adventure and the sea. Toward the end of the movie, when he directs the Queen’s forces against the armada, he seems like naval version of Tarzan, so comfortable is he swinging among the ropes and the rigging. These sorts of scenes perhaps deserve criticism. Director Kapur takes full advantage of Owen’s swarthiness and handsomeness. Fortunately, his powerful shadow cannot eclipse Ms. Blanchett’s fine portrayal of Elizabeth.
I am sorry to disagree with the venerable Washington Post, but this Elizabeth is a movie worth your time. Overall, the quality of the acting tends to help you overlook its relatively minor faults. While not quite as good as its predecessor, it remains a worthy, if somewhat more muted successor. Sequels rarely live up to the original film. That is the case here, but this is far better sequel than most and far more than just a movie with lots of people dressed up in costume. I rated the first movie a 3.3. Elizabeth: The Golden Years earns a solid 3.0.