Thursday, September 10, 2009

Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Take Two

"Elizabeth: The Golden Age" (Shekhar Kapur, 2007) Like its 1998 predecessor, "The Golden Age" is sumptuously produced, ornate in both costuming and production design, but also in filming and conceptual work. It is one of the most beautiful films I've seen in a longish time—excepting the sequences of torture and carnage—but the material feels a bit shallow (if not altogether juggled, shuffled and finagled*), like one of those bio-pic's that attempt to tell a tumultuous life in 90 minutes; no one likes to have their life, especially a Queenly one, summed up in Cliffs Notes.

"When last we left"
Elizabeth I, she had ascended the throne, unmarried and without heir, but unbowed as "The Virgin Queen." Catholics to the right of her, Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) to the left of her, and a seemingly endless line of suitors brought before her. No one has her back except her adviser Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush returning to the role) and lady in waiting Bess Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish).

But there's one angle overlooked, although director Kapur has it covered with a dizzying number of overhead shots. Since the issue in "The Golden Age" boils down to whose side is God on—between the Protestant England and the Catholic Spain—a lot of time is spent from His point of view.**

Kapur, who started his career in Bollywood, uses color more imaginatively than most current directors (rather than embracing the current trend of leeching the color from films, he adheres to using it as another communicative tool). At the end of "Elizabeth" the audience was confronted with Elizabeth "the Virgin Queen" symbolized in all her alabaster glory. We see that same white Queen often in "The Golden Age" but are also confronted with different aspects of Elizabeth. Here, with the issue of finding a proper husband and the potential of an heir, she is frequently seen behind closed doors in far rosier tones than the alabaster appearance—"the divine here on Earth," in the words of Walsingham—that she uses for regal functions. She tells the Archduke Charles, a negligible suitor: "I have a secret, my dear. I pretend there's a pane of glass between me and them. They can see me, but they cannot touch me."

In times of regal impartiality, that "pane of glass" informs itself as the color blue in Kapur's direction. It sets Elizabeth apart and keeps her coolly disengaged and formal, as in the scene below, her she visits her former suitor, Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), and wife, her former lady-in-waiting to bestow her blessing on their first-born. The rest of the room, in slightly gloomy but warm colors, are off-set by her glowing in a frosty light.

And here, leaving the death-bed of a trusted advisor, she shows no emotion as Queen, allowing the man to know that he can die in peace, his work preserving her Monarchy—and her—is done.

The shot is also centered and composed like a Baroque painting, with many tableau layered in three-dimensions within it, each with their own lighting scheme. Kapur and his production designers fill the movie with such images (when the camera isn't flitting from one side of the room to the other), especially in the climactic sea-battle where some of the battle sequences look like they could have been copied from the cover of a Patrick O'Brian novel.

Ultimately, the cold blues and alabasters give way to "the golden age," and Elizabeth is bathed in a warm glowing sunlight, holding the child of Raleigh and Bess—her position of Queen finally legitimized in reality and defended in battle—and the child that might have been hers, a subject—part of her charge, with no man her master and all of England under her protection.

* The Wikipedia entry on "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" has a nice run-down of the shuffling of events in the Queen's reign. One wonders if they'll be more accurate in the inevitable sequel—after all, we haven't seen Essex yet.

** Before I get e-mails from the indignant, we'll use the paternalistic designation...because the participants of the film did.

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