That’s the trouble with intrigue, isn’t it? With so many secrets, you can never quite tell who’s on whose side until the game ends.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) the sequel to Elizabeth (1998) (which I haven’t seen) is a historical film. What are the trials of a historical film? Accuracy is the first among them. Most of history is either too dull or the details too hard to come by to put on screen. The scale of war, for example, almost necessarily must be altered into the absolutely false in order to remain cinematic. After all, would an audience be interested in a battle where the combined forces couldn’t fill the bleachers in a high school gym? You can’t film that from a helicopter. Characters of history, too, are the same way. An actor is left to simply hold to an absolute fiction and be praised for straight-up acting. I point to The Lion in Winter (1968) as an unmitigated success in such a policy. Finally, language, for sake of writer and listener, will only approach (and never meet) accuracy to the time or place. It can neither be too “thee and thine” nor “chill out, man” but fall in between satisfying no one.
Queen Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) is growing old and still has no husband or heir. Because of this and her heading a protestant state, Mary (Samantha Morton), Queen of Scotland (who is under house-arrest by Sir Amyas (Tom Hollander), stands as a ready alternative for her Catholic enemies, including , King Phillip (Jordi Mollà) and Robert Reston (Rhys Ifans), a Jesuit (apparently). Meanwhile, Elizabeth is quite taken with Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) who is also entangled with Bess Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish) while Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), what I’d describe as the queen’s chief of staff, tries to hold it all together. Phillip also has a plot for the invasion of England. Let’s see how that turns out.
The number of problems with this movie is considerable. The historical laxity of a period I know a bit about makes it incredibly difficult to enjoy. It’s actually quite a bit like the adaptation of a novel. I know what’s coming and that the characters are so different in the source material, so every diversion is a jarring error. Like so many adaptations, the book is better. There were some good points, but they were invariably undermined at the same time. But where it fell down on the fundamental level was in its sense of history. When are we? What are people like? The fact that Shakespeare’s characters are completely unlike any others in all the time before his is not only a reflection of literature. People were different.
Begin at the beginning. The writing from William Nicholson and Michael Hirst is very mixed. Dialogue is well within the acceptable range of dated-yet-intelligible. They take some of the dumber things and turn them into plausible things. Do I bite my thumb at you sirs, no, but I do bite my thumb. These dumb things are usually the constant, unending, unendurable melodrama. Unendurable for me, that is. But there are also holes or ludicrousness in the story. Example: Bess says she’s going out of town to have her child, but later she’s very much not out of town. Ludicrousness comes about in the form of character appearances. I.e. Well isn’t Raleigh Johnny-on-the-spot?
This problem with the movie is that it is about a couple of individuals. Of course it is. In the trade, they’re called characters and more often than not, they are limited and identifiable so that a cogent story can be made and understood. But, also of course, this is not how history happens. The cast is enormous and characters come in and out creating endless contexts and subplots. Still, balances can be made. You can pay attention to characters without identifying them by name. History also rarely follows a melodrama of love triangles and forlorn looks that make me gag without a great deal happening in the background. This film accepts this fact, but prioritizes the melodrama. This triangle (though not the only or even the most interesting of Elizabeth’s sexual intrigues) is fleshed out in gruesome and inaccurate detail while a vast, awesome conspiracy and invasion plan works itself out in the background. You can’t account for taste.
While story and priority is in serious question, it’s really the direction from Shekhar Kapur that makes a potentially tolerable movie intolerable. A gigantic part of this is the spinning. Not only does Kapur spin around Blanchett like he’s inextricably caught in her orbit, but I swear he puts her on turn-table to increase the speed of rotation. Tony Scott (RIP) would have been queasy. Other annoying camera techniques included shooting from behind pillars or people such that the speaker was half visible, too much medium-long, overhead shots, and diverse but disconnected filtering (is it clear, gray, sepia, or what and why?). The last bit was particularly annoying to me. Some of it was quite lovely. The Armada, for example, looked pretty good, but it was all the beauty of a hotel painting: well-scoped, but glossy and creamy—in a bad way. It makes the image look manufactured rather than real. It has no ‘eye’ to it if I may be so hideously pretentious to say so.
Performances were, I suppose, near excellent. They were exactly who they were supposed to be. Owen played the swashbuckler rogue, charming but base, which I found nauseating. They formulated a Danielle Steele melodrama with the names of historical figures. Plug and play. But he played his part with more legitimacy than it had any right to be. Blanchett, though given an immeasurably better role, does her work even better. I don’t think that the camera knew how to capture her subtlety, but she can’t be blamed for that. Geoffrey Rush got a solid character, but was short changed in the extreme. If only Walsingham was a sexy young thing, we might have gotten to know him better. I though Hollander probably did the most with the least, though Morton could claim the same but Hollander used restraint rather than bombast.
Oh, and the music, I almost forgot. The source of the creamy images was the music. So saccharin. Okay, I’m mixing my food metaphors, but it’s true. Like the movie, it’s so plausible. It sounds just like good music sounds, but it is just too much. On its own, lovely, no question, but as a soundtrack, blah.
I’m thinking reboot.