Our challenge this week is thus: Is it possible for a director to make a historical film and not have it wind up either: A) totally boring like “The Sun,” Aleksandr Sokurov’s film about Emperor Hirohito, or B) completely over-the-top and ludicrous like “300”?
Our contestant this week is Shekhar Kapur, a quite capable director who has met this challenge before in 1988, with “Elizabeth.” That film fashioned a great thriller out of the courtroom intrigue and sectarian struggles of 16th-century England and featured an astounding performance by a then barely-known Cate Blanchett as the “virgin queen,” Elizabeth I.
“Elizabeth” was a critical and box-office success, so it’s no surprise a sequel was green-lighted — but it does raise an eyebrow that it took a decade. Kapur’s new film, “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” picks up the story 15 years after the end of the previous film and tries to work the same magic. The operative word here is “tries.”
The film drops us into London in 1585, where Catholic assassins still plot against the Protestant queen, and the papist King Philip of Spain (Jordi Molla) has — as the film puts it — “plunged the world into Holy War.”
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||114 minutes|
|Opens||Now showing (Feb. 22, 2008)|
While some scheme against Elizabeth (Blanchett again), others court her favor: Foreign royalty seek her hand in marriage while adventurer/explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) shamelessly flirts with the queen to obtain funding for another journey to the New World, America.
While Elizabeth was an uncertain young woman in the previous film, here she is far more confident in her exercise of power. Actresses feast on the chance to play regal, and Blanchett — who’s already had some practice as a haughty Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator” — is no exception; her Elizabeth is a woman obviously comfortable being the center of attention, while giving nothing away. Her gaze bears the strength of someone who knows she can make you kneel before her at any moment, as she does to Raleigh, when he gets too familiar. “Lower your eyes!” she barks. “You are not my equal.”
The dichotomy the film draws is the toll this takes on a person, with public displays of strength balanced by weepy consultations with an astrologer or confessions of loneliness to a lady-in-waiting in private. Perhaps Hillary Clinton may even shed a genuine tear at the scene where the queen confesses to Raleigh, “I’m very tired of being in control.” (And perhaps Bill would chuckle at Raleigh’s reply: “Nonsense. You eat and drink control.”)
The film builds up steam as Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots) plots an assassination attempt with Robert Reston (Rhys Ifans), and King Philip’s famed Spanish Armada sails to invade England. Further complications arise when the rakish Raleigh becomes involved with Bess (Abbie Cornish), the Queen’s confidante. Elizabeth erupts in a jealous rage and seems close to hysteria just as her country needs her most.
Kapur brings the same visual opulence to the sets and costumes as he did previously, and the same very modern sense of editing for this period piece, with active cutting creating an urgent tempo. Geoffrey Rush is again excellent in his Merlin-like role of Sir Francis Walshingham, the power behind the throne. The way he tortures prisoners to extract information about the cells of religious fanatics has clear echoes of the Bush/Cheney regime.
So why does the film seem so disposable?
Chalk that one up to the script. Seeing the name William Nicholson, who wrote “Gladiator,” doesn’t really inspire confidence in historical accuracy. And sure enough, all too much of the movie comes off as a particularly florid Harlequin romance. The romance between Raleigh and Elizabeth is a major part of the film, and it’s flatter than yesterday’s cola. Dialogue just doesn’t get much more cliched than lines such as “Why be afraid of tomorrow, when today is all we have?”, “I have never known a woman like you,” and “In another world, could you have loved me?”
In another world, could this have been a good film? Yes, but it would have needed, A) a narrative that non-Brits could follow (exactly why was Mary Stuart locked up?); B) a bigger CGI budget, so they could actually show the final battle at sea with the armada, instead of just using close-ups of people on ships; and C) a script that didn’t reek of gorgonzola. Didn’t happen.