I've never seen Elizabeth. Will that fact influence my reaction to Elizabeth: The Golden Age? Somehow I don't think so. Yes, there is consistency in cast and creative, however this film centers on a different stage of the Queen's life. Something tells me that knowing the events of the 1998 film will have no bearing on the events being told in this one. So, without the experience of Elizabeth I bravely entered the darkened theater somewhat prepared to watch this historical epic. I went in looking forward to the grandiose pageantry and operatic heights to which the drama will escalate. I was even more looking forward to the costumes and art direction; these are what really attracted me in the trailers. Well, that and the strong cast that had been assembled.
If you are looking for any sort of historical accuracy, you are going to want to avoid this like the plague. Sure, there is a solid basis in history, or else the entire production would be a farce. However, in an effort to make that history a bit more palatable, the facts are embellished, tweaked, and amped up in an effort to appeal to an audience wider than history buffs and art house aficionados.
As the drama starts Elizabeth is under attack from the Pope, who has declared a holy war on the island nation. Elizabeth was not Catholic and was not loved by the Catholic community. Leading the charge is King Phillip II of Spain, whose intent was to assassinate the Queen and place her cousin, the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, upon the throne. Barring that, he would send the massive Spanish Armada across the channel to forcibly remove her from said throne. This set-up alone is plenty to fill a feature film, but there is a lot still to be filled in.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age takes us inside the Queen's court where her closest advisor, Sir Francis (Geoffrey Rush), urges her to take a husband and produce an heir and the Queen dismisses many suitors, seeming to live vicariously through her ladies in waiting. This is all well and good until Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) arrives and catches the Queen's eye, not to mention that of lead waiting lady (is that correct?) Elizabeth Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish). While this soap opera is playing out, there is movement on the war/assassination front.
The biggest problem is that I did not care about any of the characters. I am not even sure if I was supposed to. Everything was played larger than life, there was not much in the way of subtlety. Maybe this is the way they were, maybe it wasn't. Frankly, it did not matter to me one way or the other. Some of it was played so far over the top as to become rather humorous. For example, watch the Spanish envoy to the court — did anyone else think the primary was Chris Kattan? It was almost laughable. Then there is Clive Owen, not in top form here, seeming more ready for a Fabio-esque photo shoot and romancing the court than doing anything meaningful. When we finally get to the battle, it's over almost before it begins, with little in the way of excitement.
On another note there is the score. I am not averse to big and bombastic scores but there is something about this work from Craig Armstrong and AR Rahman that just got under my skin. The way the score announced how you were supposed to feel was just a distraction.
Despite all of these things I didn't like, there is a lot to like as well. Costumes, set design, art direction, all absolutely gorgeous. While the narrative may leave you on the outside, the sumptuous costumes will never leave you at a loss for things to look at. Simply put, I was awed. I am sure that any one of you will feel the same way.
Cate Blanchett is also a bright spot. The dialogue may be bombastic, overblown, and operatic, but Blanchett really makes it click. Surprising too, considering how little I cared about the story. She owned the screen with every line, quite a performance.
Bottom line. I may have to go back and watch the first film to get a taste of what a good Elizabethan film is. Besides all of the art and Cate's performance, I found little to truly recommend, although I have found audience reaction to be divided, so I fully expect many of you to disagree with me. Anyway you choose to slice it, this movie was a missed opportunity covered with too much surface and containing too little depth.