October 11, 2007

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Elizabeth: The Golden Age (PG-13)
Queen Elizabeth could give Hillary Clinton plenty of pointers for dealing with public criticism, incessant questions about one’s private life, an over-stretched military, budget problems and religious extremists threatening from abroad — all problems facing the 16th-century English queen in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, the sequel to 1998’s Elizabeth.

Actually, should Sen. Clinton become president and as difficult as being America’s first female president likely would be, at least Spain isn’t going to try to attack the country by sea. Also, at least she doesn’t have to wear a 16th-century corset and a giant red wig.

As when we last left her, Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett, as regal as ever) is ruling a somewhat peaceful England that has somewhat settled its warring religions problem. But Catholic Spain threatens to bring back the burnings and terror of Bloody Mary’s reign. Spanish allies in England are conspiring to put Mary Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) on the throne and sail their armada up the Thames, with the ships full of fire power and Inquisition-spreading priests. At home, there are still calls for her to give up her “virginity” and pick a husband requiring her to play a careful game of letting suitors court her without accepting them or causing an international incident. In diplomacy and sniffing out treason, her most valuable lieutenant is still Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) but he’s now frailer than before.

Beneath the white make-up and the stiff and ornate red wig, Elizabeth has managed to keep all feelings of passion cooled until Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) shows up, full of swashbuckling stories of the New World and a naughty boy attitude that Elizabeth, an iconoclast herself, finds attractive. She can’t exactly ask him up for coffee, wink wink, to the royal boudoir so she hangs out with him a bit along with her ladies in waiting, including Bess (Abbie Cornish) who is young and pretty and Elizabeth’s proxy for the flirting and dancing she can’t, as a dignified monarch, do anymore. When it’s clear that Bess and Raleigh really have feelings for each other, however, Elizabeth isn’t so happy about her crumbs of vicarious romance anymore.

The clash between the teenagery-ish “Bess is, like, totally flirting with Walter, who is sooo into me” and the King Henry V-ish “England shall not fall while I am queen” is quite jarring in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. We get some ominous scenes of Spanish war plans and then we get Elizabeth acting all goofy over Sir Walter. Perhaps this is how Elizabeth was — this is, to some extent, also how Helen Mirren played her in the recent HBO miniseries. But this blending of personal and political doesn’t work nearly as well as it did in the first movie. Elizabeth was all about a young woman finding her voice, her confidence and her political will and figuring out what she’ll have to sacrifice. Her love affair — which ended with heartbreak and the realization that personal happiness was now secondary to the health of her country — fit perfectly with the more saga-like The Godfather-esque scenes of the consolidation of power.

The power — how to get it, how to keep it, how to use it — is what’s missing here. The story of the English victory over the Spanish and how the country moved down the road of establishing itself as the next great world power is a fascinating one. Even if you don’t know anything about history, the movie tells us it’s fascinating via the beginning and ending title cards, the soaring music, the ornate costumes and the stunning, epic-worthy visuals. Sadly, it does not tell us so via the story itself. Too much “Elizabeth the woman” was crammed into a story were “Elizabeth the monarch” would have done just fine. Cate Blanchett is glorious here — the few scenes where she gets to work up a temper and yell at or about somebody (the Spanish, preferably, as her insults at King Philip II are particularly entertaining) are great. She’s majestic and regal, and, if you were born before Thomas Jefferson, you probably could convince yourself that she has a divine right to rule. As that other recent Helen Mirren project, The
Queen, proved, just being a monarch can be wonderful fodder for a character study. And think how much more interesting — not to mention how much more ripe with direct commentary on modern life — such a study would be if the woman in charge weren’t just a figurehead but a prince (as Elizabeth calls herself here), a woman making the decisions.

But the movie doesn’t give her much of a chance to be that person. Instead, there are awkward scenes of romantic longing that seem juvenile both for the character and the actress. If there was such a dichotomy in the personality of Queen Elizabeth, the movie needs to explain why it was so. If the melodrama was invented to fill some studio-imposed romance quota, well, perhaps they should have considered their audience first. I doubt anyone going to Elizabeth: The Golden Age wanted this much Bridget Jones soap. B-

Rated PG-13 for violence, some sexuality and nudity. Directed by Shekhar Kapur and written by William Nicholson and Michael Hirst, Elizabeth: The Golden Age is an hour and 54 minutes long and is distributed by Universal Pictures. It will open in wide release on Friday, Oct. 12.