Be careful what you wish for. I’d been waiting for an Elizabeth I movie to render the defeat of the Spanish Armada onscreen, but none has ever really delivered to my knowledge. Tom Hooper’s recent version with Helen Mirren seemed promising, but it too skimmed over full representation, preferring politics to pandemonium (not that there’s anything wrong with that). We have the goddamned technology, I complained. Where the hell’s the goddamned flotilla? I’m generally a crotchety CGI-basher, but there’s something about the promise of seeing dozens of Spanish and Portuguese man-of-wars drowning in their own hubris that’s always kind of beckoned. Who doesn’t love a major historical battle writ large, bracketed by a strong cinematic context?
Unfortunately neither the battle scene nor the context in Elizabeth: The Golden Age bring it home. And given director Shekhar Kapur’s track record (he of the 1998 Elizabeth and Bandit Queen, an unforgettable Indian film about another woman who grasps power in a male-dominated world), I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume gangrenous studio meddling. In fact, it was probably some boardroom dunderpate with the very same gimme my Armada! vision who shat all over the battle sequence and, by extension, most of Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Or maybe Kapur’s lost his nuts ‘n bolts since 1998. It’s hard to pinpoint cause, but the effect is unmistakable: overwrought melodrama. Some of this melodrama pulsed just beneath the surface of Kapur’s first Elizabeth movie, erupting in the final scene with a banging release of tension. But for the most part, that first stab was staid and controlled by contrast. Kapur’s sequel revives the sledgehammer final scene of the original and extends it over the course of an entire movie. Overstuffed metaphor in quiet spurts is palatable, forgivable, and even laudable when done to effect, as it was when Cate Blanchett rose on her dais at the end of Elizabeth like an alabaster sacrifice to her nation. But overstuffed metaphor that roars at you through cloddish teeth for two hours deserves much pointing and laughing.
The Golden Age picks up in 1585. Spain, we’re reminded, is the most powerful empire in the West under Philip II, holy wars rage, and Elizabeth perches on a throne compromised by Mary Stuart’s existence, Catholic unrest, and her own unfulfilled biological drives. Kapur ensures we get the queenhood/motherhood connection by knocking us over the heads with it in scene after scene. This Elizabeth is a w-o-m-a-n with womanly needs. A good chunk of the film is taken up by a love triangle between the Queen, her favorite lady-in-waiting, and a swashbuckling, puffy-shirted Sir Walter Raleigh. The casting is inspired: beyond Blanchett as Elizabeth (who looks as if she’s about to act out of her own skin, she’s so precise), someone somewhere finally realized that Samantha Morton was born to play Mary Queen of Scots, and Clive Owen born to play Raleigh. Geoffrey Rush, that ubiquitous Elizabeth-film face, lurks in the background as Walsingham, and Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill and Enduring Love — shudder — notwithstanding) once again melts chins and noses with his hotness as a prowling turncoat. Between the cast and the (astonishing) costumes and the cavernous sets, there’s much reason to forgive the film, and much to enjoy; I’ll admit that, despite its flaws and its ridiculous posturing, I was in the right mood to almost delight in the film’s cheesetastic excesses.
But I feel duty-bound to warn readers: the same absurdity that injects The Golden Age with midnight-screening cult potential is bound to piss off legions of more exacting viewers. Clive Owen, for all his talent, deserves much eye-rolling in his bodice-ripping duds, and much hooting during the battle scenes, leaping from burning ship to burning ship with a Douglas Fairbanks swagger, wind-blown and sea-matted just so. The execution of Mary is freakish — Kapur styles and lights Morton like a pin-up girl as she gazes up at the axe-man from her chopping block, erotic and pliant in her legendary red death-dress. The defeat of the Armada is rendered in the deep oils of a Salvator Rosa painting and presented as high myth (as it has, to be fair, come down to the English mind via history). The sky roils overhead, the sea churns, white stallions dive slo-mo into the waves, and bells, rosaries and crucifixes sink into the deep with symbolic finality. This weather/power motif is almost stifling; Kapur takes the famous divine-intervention element of the battle and runs with it like a half-crazed monastic lush. It can’t be left out of the mix — it’s so central to the participants’ point of view and to naval history — but the unleashing of a thousand windy metaphors and declarations flogs the horse, ultimately, to a nauseating red mash.
Despite all this, there’s something in The Golden Age for literature buffs, if for no one else. Kapur and his team have obviously been inspired by Edmund Spenser’s epic love-letter to his monarch, because this particular cinematic Elizabeth is no question the Faerie Queene. When she isn’t wrapped in sky blues and sun golds that mark her out as a divinely appointed ruler or an embodiment of the natural order, Elizabeth floats along in virgin white, surrounded by winged netting, heavenly light ballooning around her. She even inhabits the image of Spenser’s Britomart when she marshals her troops in the trappings of chivalric romance: full armor and a white horse. Kapur’s apparently also read up on his Gothic theory, because he deploys the anti-Catholic tropes that infested the English Gothic novel in the 18th century: Catholic Spain and Mary’s prison-castle are places of shadows and Papist corruption; Philip and his ambassadors are decked out in their signature black; Gothic imagery is associated with the enemy (and with the English court’s own dungeon-full of Catholic traitors languishing in chains and iron-maidens — reflecting the Inquisition anxiety that motivates the Queen). Spiritual and intellectual light can only be found, in other words, in Elizabeth’s nation. It’s an old bias that courses through English literature from the Renaissance on, and Kapur excels in reproducing that patriotic/xenophobic state of mind by plunging into England’s Gothic repertoire, paying attention to his use of light and shadows, fiddling with the sublime during the battle scenes, and fashioning a world seen through English Protestant eyes, bigoted as they were. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on October 13, 2007.)