Fie on those who have trashed this entertainingly overheated historical conceit! Yes, it’s completely indefensible as history. So what else is new? As someone noted years ago about the much respected Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), in terms of history, the movie got it right that he wore funny hats, was fat and had eight wives. Not much has changed in 74 years, and anyone going to a movie like this expecting historical accuracy is in the same unseaworthy vessel as the student who watches James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and uses it to turn in a book report on Mary Shelley’s novel.
For that matter, I’m not sure that the film is on all that much firmer ground as filmmaking. Shekhar Kapur is a clever man with a movie camera, but it’s often hard determining what his cleverness is in the service of—other than his own cleverness. Occasionally, there’s a striking image—the gigantic red cross on a Spanish ship’s sail dwarfing the figure of a man—that has some bearing on the film’s story or point. And sometimes his apparent penchant for being the Elizabethan Busby Berkeley by shooting straight down on his characters from a height effectively conveys either their isolation or their smallness in the huge drama surrounding them. But he uses the effect so often that it’s hard not to expect the players to form large floral patterns while “By a Waterfall” comes up on the soundtrack.
Speaking of the soundtrack, there’s this score by Craig Armstrong and A.R. Rahman that seems to want to outact Cate Blanchett—an impossible feat in this instance. And that brings us to Ms. Blanchett and her scenery-chewing turn as Queen Elizabeth I. Now, I never saw her performance in Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998), but if it was even close to the wildly enjoyable histrionics on display here—something between Glenda Jackson at her Glenda-est and a drag queen—sign me up for a copy.
Samantha Morton’s Mary Stuart—who in one of the film’s rare outbursts of accuracy never shares the screen with Blanchett’s Elizabeth—is handled in the apparent belief that underplaying will somehow combat the theatrics. Unfortunately, it mostly makes the character come across as a sneaky, sniveling little twerp, who hardly deserves Elizabeth’s angst at having her rival offed by the axe-man.
Then there’s Clive Owen as Sir Walter Raleigh, who looks nothing like the picture on the tobacco can, speaks with a slightly modern working-class accent, and behaves rather in the manner of Errol Flynn. (The historical Sir Francis Drake might be greatly surprised to learn that the future tobacco man is really the fellow who defeated the Spanish Armada.) I’m not sure what else can be said about the Owenized Sir Walter, but I do wonder what Geoffrey Rush as Sir Francis Walsingham was doing, since he, unfathomably, seems to be taking all this folderol very seriously indeed. Good heavens, the man even plays a wholly subtle death scene—something I attribute to his very justifiable fears that one of Kapur’s suspended-from-the-rafters cameras might fall on him if he flailed about.
So, you wonder, after cataloging Elizabeth: the Golden Age‘s amassed nonsense, why I am awarding the film three-and-a-half stars and heaping coals on its detractors? Simple: All this swashbuckling, scenery-chewing, way-past-ripe absurdity is glorious fun. Approached that way, this saga of Elizabeth vs. the Spanish Armada—complete with images that might be out of John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) or Peter Jackson’s LOTR: The Return of the King (2003)—is pretty palatable. The trouble comes if you take it seriously. Rated PG-13 for violence, some sexuality and nudity.