Elizabeth: The Golden Age (United Kingdom/France, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Historical epics are often met with mixed reactions from the masses. For every singular triumph like 300, there are many more disappointments. So it should be no surprise that producers, eager to fill cold seats with warm bodies, have returned to the time and place of one of recent cinema's most celebrated historical epics: sixteenth century England. Elizabeth was one of 1998-99's biggest art house hits (so big, in fact, that it spilled into some mainstream theaters), grossing more than $30 million domestic and garnering seven Oscar nominations. That kind of success can justify another installment, especially if the filmmakers feel there's more of the story to be told. Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth: The Golden Age is the result, one of those rare beasts - a sequel to a movie whose primary audience is not teenagers. Presumably, Kapur rejected calling the movie Elizabeth II because that would have created all sorts of confusion.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age lacks the intricate plotting that characterized its predecessor. The screenplay is more action-oriented but not as smart, and some of the dialogue is downright cheesy. Many of those involved in the first Elizabeth have returned, including actors Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush; director Kapur; screenwriter Michael Hirst; and cinematographer Remi Aderfarasin. For the most part, Elizabeth: The Golden Age feels like what it's supposed to be - a continuation of the story begun in the 1998 feature. If it lacks the power and grandeur of the first chapter... well, sequels almost always show a fall-off, and here at least the drop isn't precipitous.

It's 1585 and every Catholic in England is a possible assassin. The Pope has declared a holy war against the Protestant queen and her kingdom. The struggle is being led by Spain's King Philip II, who has decided that the best approach is to supplant Elizabeth (Blanchett) with her cousin, Queen Mary of Scotland (Samantha Morton), who is a Catholic. Failing that, he's ready to send his mighty armada across the seas and into battle. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is dealing with domestic matters. Her advisors, including the faithful Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), are pressing her to marry. She rejects many appropriate suitors but finds herself drawn to the dashing Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), an adventurer who has also caught the eye of her principal lady in waiting, Elizabeth Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish). Soon, however, problems with Mary and Spain force Elizabeth to make some terrible choices.

From a purely visual standpoint, Elizabeth: The Golden Age is every bit as impressive as Elizabeth. With respect to costumes and set design, this is a sumptuous affair. The script is less even, as is the pacing. The first two-thirds of the movie deal almost exclusively with the intrigue of Elizabeth's court and it isn't nearly as engaging as the poisonings and backstabbing we have become used to in many historical epics. The war with Spain comes quickly, is told mainly through montages, and is over too easily and bloodlessly. The entire movie could have focused on that and, by condensing it in such a manner, there's a sense that it's not given its due.

Blanchett is the film's chief asset, picking up where she left off nearly ten years ago. This isn't the star-making turn it was at that time, but it's solid, colorful work. Geoffrey Rush has less to do and, as a result, is a less forceful presence. Clive Owen is suitably dashing and Abbie Cornish is adorable, but neither draws the camera's attention with regularity. Although the performances are all workmanlike, they are unlikely to garner much notice when it comes time for Oscar nominations to be announced. (Blanchett may well be nominated, but her chances are better as Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes' I'm Not There than as the Queen in Elizabeth.)

Historians may have fits with some of the liberties taken regarding the established record, but the story retains enough factual backing to keep it from becoming a complete fabrication, and the decisions made help with the story's flow. The problem with Elizabeth: The Golden Age is that Kapur tries to shoehorn too much material into a two-hour time slot. The betrayals and other assorted goings-on of the first 80 minutes deserve their own movie as does the war with Spain. Cramming all of that into a single film does an injustice to both aspects. The battle between the English Navy and the Spanish Armada is over so quickly that there's no time for suspense (even though we know from history which side wins). In short, this is an adequate follow-up to the critically lauded Elizabeth and will satisfy (if not overjoy) some fans of the genre, but it does not top its predecessor nor is it likely to be a forerunner in 2008's Oscar race.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (United Kingdom/France, 2007)

Run Time: 1:54
U.S. Release Date: 2007-10-12
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Situations, Brief Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1