Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Almost ten years after Cate Blanchett's breakthrough performance as the Virgin Queen in Elizabeth, she reunites with the director Shekhar Kapur, writer Michael Hirst (with William Nicholson) and co-star Geoffrey Rush for the sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Like its predecessor, The Golden Age blends fact and myth to convey the essence of a queen who could be proud yet petty; both passionate and powerful.

A brief history lesson: Elizabeth I was the progeny of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Prior to this union, England was, along with the rest of Europe, a Catholic state. When the Pope refused to annul his marriage to the aging Catherine of Aragon (daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain and unconsummated widow of Henry's older brother Arthur) who had borne him a daughter (the future Queen Mary aka "Bloody Mary") but not the son and heir he desired, Henry broke ties with the Catholic Church and started the Church of England--of which he was (conveniently) the head.

He then divorced Catherine and married Anne who bore him another daughter, Elizabeth. Again lack of a male heir, along with politics and gossip, convinced Henry that Anne was unfaithful to him and therefore had committed treason. She was beheaded and Henry married the frail beauty Jane Seymour (not to be confused with Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman Jane Seymour currently part of this season's cast of Dancing with the Stars). Jane produced the male heir Henry was dying for--but in doing so, died herself. Her son, Edward, became heir to the throne.

Henry VIII married three more times. First to Anne of Cleves to solidify a German alliance. Politics weren't enough for the passionate Henry and Anne was astute enough to understand this. She managed to get out of the marriage (via annulment) and back to Germany with all body parts intact. The aging and stout Henry was then captivated by the young beauty of Catherine Howard. Unfortunately, Catherine was young AND stupid and her carelessness and infidelity led to her downfall--and loss of her head.

Finally, Henry married Catherine Parr (he had a thing for girls name Cat, huh?), who ultimately survived him. Upon his death, Edward was crowned king. He was nine years old. A sickly child, Edward died at age 16 and the crown passed to Henry's first child, Mary. Mary, raised to be a devout Catholic, returned England to being a Papist state and persecuted Protestants during her reign. She married another devout Catholic, Philip of Spain. Upon her death, Elizabeth then took the throne. As the child of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth was considered by many to be a bastard. In addition, her upholding of the Protestant faith drew the ire of the Papists.

So Elizabeth's reign was always a tenuous thing--fraught with political intrigue, plots and counterplots, allies and enemies. And this is the world we are shown in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Her former brother-in-law King Philip of Spain plans her demise--stripping Spain's forests to build a vast Armada to defeat her. Papist spies plot to assassinate her. And the granddaughter of her aunt Margaret, Mary of Scotland, colludes from her castle prison to claim Elizabeth's throne as her own.

By compressing time and history, the filmmakers give us a sense of the events that shaped this era and its Queen. Unfortunately, the imprisonment and subsequent execution of Mary, Queen of Scots for treason is only a minor subplot. A bit more attention to the communication and correspondence between the two monarchs and the events leading up to Mary's "house arrest" which in turn led to her desperate attempt gain her freedom might have helped the story. Samantha Morton does a fine job as the doomed Scottish Queen--but her understated brogue is a mistake. Mary spent most of her life in France--and most likely had a French, not Scottish, accent.

Sir Walter Raleigh is played by the gorgeous and charismatic Clive Owen. He is pure yumminess every time he comes on screen. Every bit the charming rogue, Owen portrays Raleigh as part pirate, part courtier. His love story with Elizabeth's lady-in-waiting Bess Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish) is a fairly accurate depiction of actual events. Geoffrey Rush again plays the politically astute Walsingham aka "Spymaster", whose dedication and devotion to his Queen helped her maintain her throne even though beset with conspirators.

The cinematography is exquisite and the production design a thing of beauty. And the costumes--oh the costumes! Gorgeous, sumptuous, luxurious. Elizabeth knew how to present herself for maximum effect and designer Alexandra Byrne uses the same psychology to create her iconic personage. As Elizabeth's image was deliberate and intentional, so were the choices made in the colors, fabrics, textures and designs in the film. In an article in the Washington Post, Nelson Pressley writes:

"Elizabeth dominates her environment in the film (rather than having the soaring stone interiors dominate her, as they did while she struggled for her basic identity in the first picture), part of that domination comes from Byrne's costumes.
As amazing as the costumes are in this film, Cate Blanchett is no mere mannequin. Her Elizabeth is a force of nature. When she rails against the Spanish courtiers saying, "I, too, can command the wind, sir! I have a hurricane in me that will strip Spain bare if you dare to try me!," you are mesmerized by her power and presence. There are few actors of Blanchett's caliber--she is commanding in a role that seems custom-made for her.

As you can probably tell, I am really into this whole Henry VIII/Elizabeth I period of history. I find it completely fascinating and engrossing and Kapur's follow-up does justice both to the fabulous first film, and to the historical events it attempts to capture. But even more than recounting of mundane events, Elizabeth: The Golden Age captures the essence of a complex and complicated Queen. Go see it!


  1. Love the review> Check out the clip on LA-Story.com. I have linked it to this blog.

  2. LOVE LOVE LOVE this movie. Every single point that Stella makes is right on! I totally agree and her historical diagram is spot on.
    Cate Blanchett is amazing!