You don't want to mess with Elizabeth fans. I learned that the hard way. Loyal subjects of the 1998 costume drama, which put Cate Blanchett on everyone's map, are possessed of a fervent dedication you don't want to cross. Trust me. Having somehow spent years not seeing the film, only renting it this past summer in anticipation of the long-awaited sequel, I encountered the faithful regularly, and when I admitted my failing, they all looked at me with the sort of disgust reserved for the worst heretic. I often worried they would storm my apartment, tearing my Audrey Hepburn and Wong Kar-Wai posters from my walls and dumping my DVD collection in the nearest river.
I suspect director Shekhar Kapur had a righteous fear when he set out to make the second segment of his proposed trilogy. Elizabeth: The Golden Age had to be good or the fans would lynch the poor guy. I'm happy to say, Kapur succeeded in every way. So, if you're nervously pacing the room wondering if The Golden Age is the biggest mistitling in movie history, calm your nerves, sit down, and relax. There is reason to go on living.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age picks up a small distance into the Virgin Queen's reign. Blanchett reprises her role, returning with the commanding gait that the monarch had adopted at the end of the first picture, yet tempering it with the kind of confidence that only experience can instill. You can see why the actress made her director wait nearly ten years before she'd climb into the royal costume again. It required a different performer than the relative newcomer that so wowed us back in the day, as Elizabeth has become a completely different woman.
As it stands, the Protestant ruler is still in hot water with the papist powers back in Rome. Many believe Elizabeth's half-sister, the devoutly Catholic Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton), is the rightful heir to the throne, and Philip II of Spain (Jordi Molla) sees it as his divine mission to restore the proper Christian faith to this lost kingdom. Elizabeth remains staunch in all things. She won't revert back to the old ways, she won't yield to foreign powers, and she certainly won't take some simpering prince for her husband.
Yet, England is no paradise. Financially, they don't have the money they need, and Elizabeth's most trusted advisor, Sir Francis Walshingham, fears the country won't survive a clash with Spain. He'd rather position his Queen politically by finding her the most advantageous conjugal union. Walshingham is once again played by Geoffery Rush, who was marvelously conniving last time around. Here, like Blanchett, he takes his character forward in years. He has grown older, less sharp, and his insecurity leaves him brittle and vulnerable.
This is the state of Elizabeth, as well, and Blanchett is at her best in the moments where she reveals that the young girl who never imagined she'd be on the throne still hides behind the opulent gowns and wigs that befit her station. It's not a simple matter of downshifting her attitude, Blanchett is far too good for that. When it all becomes too much, it's as if the actress physically dismantles herself. Blanchett won an Oscar for her portrayal of Katharine Hepburn, and I daresay she learned something in studying that other Kate in preparation for the role. It's the kind of move that Hepburn was so good at in movies like The Philadelphia Story. Being fragile has nothing to do with betraying your strength, it's the honest admission that despite that strength, there are still things you can't handle.
One of those things is Sir Walter Raleigh, played with swashbuckling aplomb by Clive Owen. Kapur cast well here, as Owen is known to dampen many a lady's knickers. Hell, when he throws his cloak in front of his ruler to keep her feet dry, tossing her a rapacious smile in the process, even I could have done with a fresher pair of boxers. The man is all charm and no smarm. Though still recovering from the debacle that was Shoot 'Em Up, as soon as I saw Owen swing from his pirate ship, riding the hull straight into battle, all was forgiven. If the Bugs Bunny metaphor from his last film can be carried over, this time I was the wascally wabbit, and Clive Owen was my own Errol Flynn at the end of "Rabbit Hood."
Setting this sequel apart from its predecessor, Kapur changes gears from the palace intrigue that occupies the first half of The Golden Age and takes us into a full-blown action picture for the climax. It's no average action picture, however, instead keeping in style and tone with the sumptuous grandiosity that has defined the director's approach. The battle at sea is shot and edited in such a way that it's pure visual poetry. There were much easier and more straightforward ways to handle the denouement, but Kapur and his editors, Jill Bilcock and Andrew Haddock, instead construct a mis-en-scene that uses a handful of carefully chosen images to show the full consequence of the battle's outcome. Likewise, writers William Nicholson and Michael Hirst have concocted a religious metaphor that lends a patriotic fervor to England's triumph. (Shut up, that's not a spoiler; it's history.)
Though the last twenty minutes or so dominate in terms of sheer tonnage of beauty, Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a gorgeous film throughout. Those eager to see beautiful costumes and fantastic sets are going to feel engorged by the end of the picture. Special props should go to Elizabeth's battle gear, a lovely suit of armor befitting a two-fisted Queen. I loved seeing Cate Blanchett deliver a rousing speech to her troops while on horseback. If ever she wants to make a version of Henry V in drag, she's presold at least one ticket right here.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age is one of those rare and wonderful sequels that snuggles so perfectly up next to its lead-in, you almost can't believe they weren't just one film to begin with. If Kapur, Hirst, and Blanchett ever see fit to round out the trilogy, I'm sure it would be cause to rejoice. At the same time, I kind of don't want them to. Everything is too perfect as it is, and what would we do if they screw it up? Then again, they wouldn't, would they? Because they certainly know what will happen to them if they do....
Illustration by JoŽlle Jones.