Friday, March 21, 2008

Elizabeth - The Golden Age

"I am your Queen - I am myself". There is so much we know about Queen Elizabeth I and so much we don't. We know more about what she did than why she did things. We know more about her role as monarch and less about her as a person. Not that this is so surprising - even taking away the distance of time, that is pretty much true of anyone we think we know. The tension between the public face and the private persona.

In Elizabeth - The Golden Age (I guess they realized they couldn't call it Elizabeth II), there was plenty of scope to explore this tension. Elizabeth is monarch of a divided country. She is the Virgin Queen, admired, we are told in the history books for her devotion to her country but under pressure too to marry, not just to produce an heir but also to make an alliance that will help protect England from its adversaries. This is the time of the Spanish Armada, a time when England was under threat from the most powerful country in Europe, when England was isolated and under the threat of invasion. Much like it would be 250 years later and again 400 years later. A time of conflict between two versions of the same religious faith with one determined to destroy the apostates because they have God on their side. Within the country, there are many who would support her overthrow. Well, you get the picture - there are plenty of themes here that would resonate with a modern audience.

But this Elizabeth is Good Queen Bess - Bette-Davis style. Though we see a little of her crisis of conscience over the death sentence for Mary Stuart, we see far more swash-buckling CGI as the filmmaker rewrites history for the convenience of the movie pitching Sir Walter Raleigh into the heat of the battle like an earlier Captain Jack Sparrow even though he actually spent the entire time firmly on dry land. Such distortions are to be expected and don't really interfere with the purpose of such a movie (this is not a History Channel documentary after all) but they are also symptomatic of why this movie was so disappointing.

It is as glossy and vibrant as its predecessor though it is a little disconcerting to see how clean this Elizabethan Age was. It was almost bearable to have the characters speak a strange mixture of modern English with a few archaisms thrown in for effect but in the end the movie was too over-blown and empty.

Where there could have been interesting contrasts between her public face and her private needs, between her sense of duty and her need for control, the movie sets up situation after situation and then shies away from them, preferring instead to go to the next great wide shot. Clive Owen starts out playing the foil to Elizabeth - theirs is not only a sexual but also an intellectual game they are playing with each other and he is willing to take great risks not just to advance his plans to open up the New World but also to entertain the thought of a relationship with her. Yet, the movie just meanders. It is not just that he becomes dull as she tells him, it is the movie. He dutifully straps on his high leather boots, dons his pirate shirt and does his best Erroll Flynn impersonation. Thank goodness, Samantha Morton is there to play Mary Stuart. Geoffrey Rush seems completely wasted as Walsingham and by the end, Cate looks like she can't wait to get back to playing real people like Jude Quinn.

No comments: