Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Ooh! Pretty colours! But not much else unfortunately…

Rudolf Eliott Lockhart 10 November 2007

Everyone knows that when Hollywood does historical drama the English are evil. If Alan Rickman hasn’t taught us that, Mel Gibson certainly has. This makes Elizabeth: the Golden Age something of a surprising film. Covering events in England under Elizabeth I on the eve of the Spanish Armada, here is a jingoistic historical romp where the English are actually made out to be heroes.

The best part of a decade after Shekhar Kapur’s much praised Elizabeth, the film that turned Cate Blanchett into an international star, the pair have reunited for another go. Sadly, where the first film had subtlety this new offering is crass. Preferring action to restraint it revels in a screenplay of cringeworthy cheese. Clive Owen plays Walter Raleigh as a swashbuckling bodice-ripper offering the queen a love interest with more in common with Rik Mayall’s Lord Flashheart from Blackadder than Joseph Fiennes’ more understated performance in the 1998 offering.

 

Where the first film had subtlety, this offering is crass

 

Taking up the role of embodiment of villainy are the Spanish. To a man they are horribly ugly. Philip II has a mincing walk and suffers from a sweaty fear of his own people and a disturbing fixation on the notion of Elizabeth as a virgin whore.

Moreover, the film twists historical events to make it seem that Mary Queen of Scots was set up by Phillip, her plot to unseat her cousin intended to fail so as to force Elizabeth to execute her, thus giving Spain a just pretext for war. Kapur doesn’t just take liberties with history, he’s redrawing it in cartoon stereotypes. It’s as if we’re meant to boo and hiss whenever a Spaniard is on screen. Understandably Vatican backed historians have complained about the portrayal of Catholicism – where Protestant England is portrayed as a tolerant home of free thinking, the Catholic Armada brings the Inquisition and repression. These themes are perhaps reflective of contemporary concerns. Where the 1998 film was steeped in ‘girl power’ this one has fears of religious extremism at its heart. If only it had handled these ideas with more subtlety.

The film is strongest when it comes to visuals. Blanchett’s costumes are sumptuous and the sets are magnificent. Entertainingly, parts of the film are familiar, with scenes shot on the river Cam, at St. John’s and Ely Cathedral. Some of the images conjured up are particularly striking. Elizabeth in purple striding across a yellow map of Europe while planning England’s defence is both pleasing to the eye and a neat summary of the film’s sensibilities.

Yet frustratingly, even in visual terms the film ultimately comes up short. The climax ought to be the defeat of the Armada and given the bombastic nature of the film we’re owed at least a stab at a spectacle, but what we get is hugely underwhelming, looking almost as if it took place in a fish pond. The whole battle is reduced to Raleigh single-handedly pulling off victory by lighting the fuse of a fireship and diving into the sea like a man delivering Milk Tray. On land, Elizabeth gives a supposedly rousing speech, choosing not to use her stirring words from the docks at Tilbury (“I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too”), but instead a cod Braveheart offering made all the more of a damp squib by seemingly being delivered to two men and a dog. For a tub-thumping film it’s a hugely anticlimactic ending. This is a silly film. I don’t know why they released it in November – panto season is at least a month away.

Rudolf Eliott Lockhart

veryone knows that when Hollywood does historical drama the English are evil. If Alan Rickman hasn’t taught us that, Mel Gibson certainly has. This makes Elizabeth: the Golden Age something of a surprising film. Covering events in England under Elizabeth I on the eve of the Spanish Armada, here is a jingoistic historical romp where the English are actually made out to be heroes.

The best part of a decade after Shekhar Kapur’s much praised Elizabeth, the film that turned Cate Blanchett into an international star, the pair have reunited for another go. Sadly, where the first film had subtlety this new offering is crass. Preferring action to restraint it revels in a screenplay of cringeworthy cheese. Clive Owen plays Walter Raleigh as a swashbuckling bodice-ripper offering the queen a love interest with more in common with Rik Mayall’s Lord Flashheart from Blackadder than Joseph Fiennes’ more understated performance in the 1998 offering.

Taking up the role of embodiment of villainy are the Spanish. To a man they are horribly ugly. Philip II has a mincing walk and suffers from a sweaty fear of his own people and a disturbing fixation on the notion of Elizabeth as a virgin whore.

Moreover, the film twists historical events to make it seem that Mary Queen of Scots was set up by Phillip, her plot to unseat her cousin intended to fail so as to force Elizabeth to execute her, thus giving Spain a just pretext for war. Kapur doesn’t just take liberties with history, he’s redrawing it in cartoon stereotypes. It’s as if we’re meant to boo and hiss whenever a Spaniard is on screen. Understandably Vatican backed historians have complained about the portrayal of Catholicism – where Protestant England is portrayed as a tolerant home of free thinking, the Catholic Armada brings the Inquisition and repression. These themes are perhaps reflective of contemporary concerns. Where the 1998 film was steeped in ‘girl power’ this one has fears of religious extremism at its heart. If only it had handled these ideas with more subtlety.

The film is strongest when it comes to visuals. Blanchett’s costumes are sumptuous and the sets are magnificent. Entertainingly, parts of the film are familiar, with scenes shot on the river Cam, at St. John’s and Ely Cathedral. Some of the images conjured up are particularly striking. Elizabeth in purple striding across a yellow map of Europe while planning England’s defence is both pleasing to the eye and a neat summary of the film’s sensibilities.

Yet frustratingly, even in visual terms the film ultimately comes up short. The climax ought to be the defeat of the Armada and given the bombastic nature of the film we’re owed at least a stab at a spectacle, but what we get is hugely underwhelming, looking almost as if it took place in a fish pond. The whole battle is reduced to Raleigh single-handedly pulling off victory by lighting the fuse of a fireship and diving into the sea like a man delivering Milk Tray. On land, Elizabeth gives a supposedly rousing speech, choosing not to use her stirring words from the docks at Tilbury (“I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too”), but instead a cod Braveheart offering made all the more of a damp squib by seemingly being delivered to two men and a dog. For a tub-thumping film it’s a hugely anticlimactic ending. This is a silly film. I don’t know why they released it in November – panto season is at least a month away.

Rudolf Eliott Lockhart