Elizabeth: The Golden Age reunites director Shekhar Kapur and Cate Blanchett in the follow-up to the 1998 film Elizabeth, which told of the early years of Queen Elizabeth I. The earlier film deconstructed the earlier history of Elizabeth I, when she ascended to the throne following the death of her half-sister, Mary Tudor, aka Bloody Mary. The daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (who was beheaded when Elizabeth was three), Elizabeth had been raised a Protestant in the Church of England. Mary Tudor, a devout Catholic, had been married to Philip II of Spain, which made him, until Mary's death, the Prince Consort of England.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age picks up some years after Elizabeth left off, with the Protestant Elizabeth now firmly in control of the British crown. Once again, Elizabeth faces enemies and insurgency, this time from her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton), and her former brother-in-law Philip II (Jordi Molla), who comes at odds with his former sister-in-law over both religion and her approval of the capture of Spanish treasure ships. The Inquisition is in full force in Spain, and the Catholic Philip regards Elizabeth as a heretic and whore, believing that God wants him to bring her down and bring England under the firm hand of the Catholic Church and the Inquisition. Once again, Geoffrey Rush is by Blanchett's side as Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's spymaster and adviser, whose intelligence about a plot against Elizabeth saves the queen's life, even as it sets in motion a war with Spain that could spell the end of her reign. Kapur isn't making a documentary here, he's making a very stylized dramatization of historical events, so the lines of actual history do, perhaps, get a bit blurry in the translation. The Ridolfi plot against the Queen figured in the storyline of Elizabeth; The Golden Age concerns itself significantly with the later Babington Plot, which ultimately resulted in Elizabeth giving in to the long-held clamor of her advisers to have her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, executed. Blanchett captures here Elizabeth's agony over the decision to execute her cousin, though it is Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), not Elizabeth, who comments in the film that if one queen can be executed, all queens are mortal. This speaks to Elizabeth's conviction that if she ordered the execution of her cousin, it ultimately opened the door for her own decisions as a monarch to be held to the same standard as a common man's.
The secondary plot of The Golden Age deals with Elizabeth's personal life and her involvement with Sir Walter Raleigh, here ably played as a dashing, handsome adventurer by Owen. As The Golden Age portrays the relationship, affection for Raleigh crept into heart of the Virgin Queen, who refused to accept a husband in spite of the near-constant demands of both her Cabinet and the British Parliament that she marry and produce an heir. There's an amusing bit in here with Elizabeth being courted by a very young Austrian prince that allows Blanchett to show us the humorous side of Elizabeth as well.
It is in her relationship with Raleigh, though, that Elizabeth allows her heart, however briefly, to rule her head. The queen asks her favorite lady-in-watiing, Elizabeth Throckmorton, known in Court as Bess (played here by Abbie Cornish, who may, through this role, finally get some recognition outside her home country of Australia) to keep Raleigh intrigued enough to stay in England a while; what she doesn't count on is Bess and Raleigh falling in love. When Bess gets pregnant and secretly marries Raleigh, Elizabeth is outraged. Her ladies-in-waiting were required to obtain her permission to court and to marry, and Bess added fuel to the fire by falling in love with the one man (at least, in the world of The Golden Age) that Elizabeth had allowed herself to have feelings for. Enraged, Elizabeth expels Bess from her Court and orders Raleigh imprisoned.
All of this is really a side note to the greater intrigue of the plot against Elizabeth and the coming of the Spanish Armada. Through Elizabeth's most famous speech, the Speech to the Troops at Tilbury (aka The Spanish Armada Speech), we see Kapur's stylized vision of Elizabeth at its apex: Elizabeth is almost Athena-like in her regal presence before her troops, dressed in glowing silver armor on a regal, silvery-white warhorse, wearing a wig of long red hair streaming down her back and blowing about her like a fiery mantle. It is in scenes like this one, and an earlier scene of Elizabeth in a brightly hued golden-yellow gown, thundering at the Spanish Ambassador, "I have a hurricane in me, Sir!" in response to his veiled threats that Spain will bring down her pride, that Kapur and Blanchett strive to bring to life their vision of the Virgin Queen.
The film is beautifully shot, filling the screen with brightly saturated hues that give it an almost fairy tale-like visual sense, rather like a series of Pre-Raphaelite paintings brought to life. Queen Elizabeth I herself was larger than life, and Kapur presents her as an almost mythical goddess figure, surrounded by her vestal virgins in their flowing gowns and ornate hairdos. Everything about Elizabeth is done on a grand scale -- her wigs, elaborately festooned with jewels and peacock feathers, her gown, layers of sumptuous, almost-glowing fabrics, her face, pale and tinted like a china doll.
A fellow critic at the screening I attended noted that The Golden Age doesn't come close to last year's The Queen in terms of making the monarchy personal; that's not really an apt comparison, though, because Stephen Frears and Kapur were shooting for two complete different takes on two very different monarchs. The Golden Age feels less personal than Elizabeth, as well, but it's apt that it should, as the two films present Elizabeth at different times in her reign. This Elizabeth has already survived intrigues and betrayal; she is older, wiser and more cautious, and also more aware of the burden of power. Thanks largely to Blanchett's reliably strong performance, though, enough of the woman inside the monarch breaks through to let us see an imagining of her personal struggles, and to feel empathy for her experiences.
Elizabeth was a highly intelligent, charismatic and controlling ruler, and Blanchett brings her to life so succinctly in this second round that she almost dwarfs Judi Dench's Oscar-winning portrayal of the same queen in Shakespeare in Love -- a role for which Dench won the Best Supporting Actress award (Blanchett was nominated that same year for Elizabeth, but lost out to Gwyenth Paltrow). It must have been difficult enough to be a female monarch in a dangerous and ugly time when women were, overall, even less accepted in politics than they are in modern times. As a monarch, Elizabeth had to appear to be more than a regular person to her people; at the same time, the demands of the crown took away her rights as an individual to live freely and to love, and it is that conflict that Blanchett captures so well here, whether the storyline exactly mirrors history or not.