I’ve been waiting for this movie for eight years. Subconsciously, that is. Let’s face it – ‘Elizabeth: The Virgin Queen’ was not begging for a sequel. Sure, it was left open-ended, but it was a solid, finished story all by itself. The reason I was anticipating this sequel is simple. Back in 1998, director Shekar Kapur managed to reinvent a period piece genre – with more intrigue, politics, religion, medieval marriage, all kinds of hot issues thrown in. The film was great, but chronologically it only covered Elizabeth becoming the queen. The credits rolled after her coronation. I wanted to go back to that world, there was so much to mine there. So many conflicts, factual and ‘added for dramatic effects’. I fell in love with Kapur’s visual palette, his use of camera. And yes, I fell in love with Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Elizabeth and Geoffrey Rush as her advisor. And now they’re back. Right off the bat, you can tell the movie’s budget is bigger this time. Is it a good thing for a period piece?
I’m here to tell you it’s a little too much and too loud in the set department, and too little in the writing department. Style over substance. Yes, I keep in mind that Kapur is a visual director, he tends to tell a story using the camera rather than dialogue. I know that for a period drama, the more costumes the better, the more sets the better. I know all that. But … somehow all the visuals could not add up to a compelling experience. I could be biased, and it’s simply a case of exaggerated expectations, so perhaps this preface will help.
First the cast – even better than the original. Geoffrey Rush is back as Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s loyal advisor and friend. Samantha Morton is the new political or religious foe – as Mary, Queen of Scots. There is a Spanish King Philip II (Jordi Molla) who also seems to be another religious or political foe. Which is which? By making two completely different characters play similar archetypes, the movie’s plot weakens. Finally, just to bring in the female moviegoers, they throw in Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) as a possible love interest. I hope I’m not spoiling anything for anyone by emphasizing the word ‘possible’. Actually, I’m glad the way Walter is presented (and dealt with) in the film. Very realistic. I just have a problem using an actor who’s famous for his good rugged looks to play a role that can essentially be reduced to ‘eye-candy’. Owen is great in this movie and does so much more than required, but he has a small role, and considering his immense presence, I thought he was a distraction. Either use a less known actor, or give this guy a bigger role, more lines.
In fact, I have a similar problem with Samantha Morton. A great actress, stole many memorable moments in Libertine, Code 46, In America and Minority Report. Unfortunately, her role here is more visual, and I would have loved to hear her speak a little more. Don’t get me wrong, she spends plenty of time on screen, but it’s usually accompanied by ominous orchestrations or clanking of chains (hey, this is not a spoiler, if you know the history). And what about Cate Blanchett – does she have to glare and frown so much – what happened to strong, believable dialogue? Does she have to be in every scene? I may be wishing I saw a different movie, but I suspect there many be more people left with similar impressions. There’s nothing wrong with films that rely on score and visuals to tell a story, and use dialogue sparsely. With Elizabeth, I wanted more words spoken – from everyone. I was hungry for more story.
‘Cause as far as the visuals go, The Golden Age is excellent. From the courting scenes (they were hilarious in the first movie, this time the actors had even more fun doing them, and it shows), to the exquisite dinner sequences, to endless hallways and tall, painted ceilings – the film looks just gorgeous. And just when you thought the visual palette is settled, you’re treated to the fantastic Spanish Armada sequence. Not just the obvious – thousands of ships rocking in dark waters, but the war tent, the close ups of Sir Walter Raleigh’s ship, the waves breaking angrily against high cliffs, and yes, that poster shot of Elizabeth on the horse, rallying the troops. From the grand CGI armada to exquisite armor plating – the movie’s last act simply overloads with gorgeous visuals. Maybe Kapur is on to something, maybe just looking at it, and not listening much to the dialogue should be enough.
There was a Q&A after the movie when the director mentioned that the first film was about power, while the second one is about divinity of Queen Elizabeth. Yes, I can certainly see that to gain or maintain power you must do a little more talking and diplomacy than to gain or maintain divinity. Cate Blanchett certainly uses a lot of silences and stares where words would perhaps paint a better picture. Still, despite amazing visuals, and strong performances, I just wanted a bit more conflict, a few more court shenanigans, a few more powerful speeches or at least witty sparring. Perhaps I just wanted the second film to be better than the original, and that almost never works.
In the end, Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a great movie – for its looks, faces, music and drama. It is historical, so many things ‘seem’ incomplete or lacking because the writers chose not to infuse the script with made-up situations. I respect that. I just wanted to see other players a little more, Cate a little less, and story a little thicker. Rest assured, though, the Spanish Armada sequence will blow your mind. Go see it. Big emphasis on ‘see’.