In my review of the 1998 "Elizabeth", I said that it was more than your average costume drama since it had more to offer than the
well, costumes to begin with, and the usual antechamber plots, dizzying castle shots and climactic outbursts of blood. It wasn't the most original comment but I'm even more partial to it after watching the sequel of nine years later.
Shekhar Kapur's first film was about the rise to power and the tactically efficient ascension of a courageous woman who stood tall against the Catholic establishment at a time it was still having a wide influence over British citizens. She defeated the odds by becoming the second Protestant sovereign of Britain, a captivating conquest from a heroine who, by cinematic standards, was an 'underdog'. Her climactic purge was a Machiavellian masterstroke often compared to the Baptism Massacre of "The Godfather", not the most unflattering comparison.
In "The Golden Age", we meet Elizabeth again and she's not an underdog anymore, if she was Rocky, it would be the third: she's the Queen, as majestic and imperial as ever, but a bit too comfortable and accessible given her regal aura. I didn't mind it at the beginning and thought it fit the film's subtitle. But at the end, I wasn't sure I would give it the same compliment than the first film. It is entertaining and there's not a single bad performance, but there's a spice lacking somewhere. Like instead of dealing with the 'uneasy the head where lies the crown' trope, the focus was located this time a bit lower than the head, and maybe, just like Balboa, Elizabeth got too "civilized" for her own good.
The Queen is in a zone of comfort indeed, smiling, laughing, throwing a few winks to Bess, her first lady-in-waiting (played by the distractingly beautiful Abbie Cornich), making naughty jokes about her virgin status despite the zealous and formal insistence of Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) to get her a husband. These parts tie the first act together and the sunny scenery, not to mention the magnificent art settings, make the whole thing a real visual delight. The problem is that these frivolous trivialities, rather than being the quietness before the storm are in fact the machinery structuring the whole first act, which makes the entrance of Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), supposedly one of the film's highlights, more problematic.
Let me explain this: Owen is an extraordinarily charismatic actor, a man's man with a real presence, so instead of seeing in Raleigh the explorer who conquered a land he named Virginia in the name of you-know-who, who brought to England new resources such as potatoes, tobacco and gold, "borrowed" from Spanish ships
and not under their contentment, we see the dashing and dark brooding adventurer who immediately catches the eye of Cate Blanchett. We see the romance instead of the history, Elizabeth's heart-troubles contextualize the movie rather than the real problem 'out there', which is the rivalry with the most powerful Catholic country of the world: Spain. I wouldn't have minded an intimate angle
if it wasn't so superficial, not to mention, historically inaccurate.
There's even a moment where the bond is so tight between Raleigh and Elizabeth that he crosses the line of insolence without even coming close to reach Elizabeth's breaking point. This Elizabeth is so hypnotized by the achievement of Raleigh that she forgot about her greatest conquest: power, and belittled herself in a way I didn't quite expect. I guess these artistic licenses were too blatant not to be deliberate, a sort of narrative choice meant to create a bigger contrast between Elizabeth's sudden vulnerability and the dark and scheming confidence of Philip II (Jordi Molla), ominously contemplating the conquest of England. The Spanish king is convinced that he's on the right side of God's Law while Elizabeth is the prey of doubt and love-sickness.
It's not an uninteresting parallel between emotional fragility and unshakable faith, but the portrayal of Catholics isn't subtle and tends to reinforce that awkward feeling of something Manichean going on. I don't mind the Spanish being the antagonists, from a historical standpoint, it was true but it's all in the treatment and 'Golden Age" is too busy trading the authenticity for a few romantic subplots that I found myself lost more than once. The film shows an Elizabeth who's contested from within and from the exterior, whose loyal Bess gets pregnant from Raleigh but even the less literate in History knows that the real deal is the big fight against the Armada and couldn't care more about Elizabeth's self-esteem and existential issues.
Yet the screenplay didn't establish solid hierarchies between the subplots. Everything is handled as if it was the same matter of life and death, to the point that we never really identify the moment where she Elizabeth overcame her demons, which basically means the whole second act. We have to accept that 'what didn't kill her made her stronger' to get ready for the big finale. It is ironic that in all this castle soap-opera, the most interesting character's arc is Marie Stuart (Samantha Morton) whose story-line is handled in better clarity and concludes in perhaps the most beautiful and memorable scene.
I was baffled to read that the film took liberties with history, while it had the perfect material: the Spanish Enterprise, the assassination attempts, the execution of Marie and of course the Armada
whose climactic fight was too spectacular to elevate the film above conventionality, not that I believe Kapur tried to be unconventional. He was too busy making this visual ride that he forgot to stay focused on the few elements that made Elizabeth such an unconventional heroine.
It's like Kapur was so carried away by the loss to "Shakespeare in Love" that he wanted his 'romantic' Best Picture contender. The film was "only" nominated for Best Actress and Costumes, not such a good idea, after all.