October 21, 2007

Movie Review: Elizabeth, The Golden Age

I really enjoyed the first Elizabeth movie with Cate Blanchett as England's greatest ruler, so I went in to this movie with high expectations. I did not expect the movie to be fast-moving, but I was a little put off by just how slow it turned out to be. But the movie succeeds in its dramatic objective, and it is absolutely stunning to behold.

If you're a lover of visual elements contributing to a story, the way, for instance, Ridley Scott's movies use camera angles, set design, costumes, and location scouting to help move a story along, Elizabeth, The Golden Age will be a satisfying experience for you. If you're looking for a good war story mixed with a romance, you can do better. Both the war and the romance in the story are important elements to the story, but they aren't the real struggle going on within the title character.

The movie is set in 1587 and 1588, as Spain is agitating for war against England based on England's status as the most prominent and wealthy Protestant nation in Europe. There are two significant historical liberties taken with the movie -- the real-life personalities of Francis Walsingham and William Cecil are conflated into a single character, and some deeds of Sir Francis Drake are conflated into the backstory of Sir Walter Raleigh, whose historical life events are also subject to revision in timing for dramatic purposes.

Elizabeth is portrayed at the height of her power as queen, addressing the issues of the day and the politicians working under, with, and at cross purposes to her with the kind of comfort and authority one would expect from a great ruler. She is beautiful, wise, intelligent, and promotes religious tolerance at some risk to herself. But, she is lonely and with the benefit of her education, she knows that life has more to offer than what she sees as the gilded prison of her throne. Most of all, she wants to be loved rather than flattered, and she despairs of any man loving her for herself rather than for the power and wealth which she can dispense. She has problems -- what to do about that pesky Mary Stuart, whom she has imprisoned in a rural castle, and growing tensions with the powerful Spanish Empire and its religious zealot of a leader, King Philip.

But the real conflict is not political, it is internal. Elizabeth finds herself attracted to Walter Raleigh, a bold and handsome adventurer -- but she cannot pursue him from her throne, and sends her lady-in-waiting to woo him in her stead. This creates a love triangle that the viewer knows is doomed to end badly. It also clouds Elizabeth's vision of governance, and she and her administration fall in to a trap, which leads to war against Spain. Deliberately and with some grace and subtlety, the movie propels Elizabeth to have to choose what kind of a person she really is. Though in the end she watches the Invincible Armada burn in the English Channel, her real triumph comes within herself.

I was dissatisfied with a few elements of the movie, though. I was particularly disappointed that in her rally to her soldiers, Elizabeth did not utter the historically accurate and stirring line that should the Spanish land on English soil, they would find that England's queen had "the heart and stomach of a man." A sexist sort of comment, to be sure, but not only age-appropriate but quite bold in context. It would not have failed to have inspired bravery, and given that the line was so famous it really should have been in the movie.

Sure, I would have liked to have seen more of the naval battle between England and Spain, but I realize there were budget issues and the movie wasn't as much about the war as it was about the queen. I'm not bothered that much about the liberties with history that the screenwriters took -- the reality of the duelling spymasters at Elizabeth's court, and the rise and fall of various nobles within that court would have been far too complex and distracting for the movie's real story.

But having decided to dispense with the details of history and chronology, the writers could have taken things a few steps further than they did, and presented Elizabeth with more choices and fewer faits accompli. Despite her obvious strength as a character and as a leader, her most critical decisions (how to resolve her attraction to Raleigh; how to deal with Mary Stuart; how to deal with resistance to her rule) were too frequently made for her by others, especially as the plot developed. And while it's historically accurate to show her vacillating on the question of whether to execute Mary Stuart, it's still not only distasteful but more to the point, contrary to the image of Elizabeth as a strong ruler that the movie wanted to present.

Cate Blanchett did a fantastic job of showing Elizabeth's emotions while presented with many difficult situations. The other actors, including the rakishly handsome Clive Owen, all turn in journeyman performances. I liked Geoffrey Rush as Walsingham very much, especially with the moral ambiguities inherent in being the queen's right-hand man. The sets and costumes are astounding; in particular, Elizabeth's makeup (much noted even in her own day) is presented with care to accommodate the demands of both present-day filmmaking and historical authenticity (the real Elizabeth, probably to conceal smallpox scars, wore very heavy, very white makeup almost all the time she was in public view). The liberties taken with historical events are intelligently chosen and fulfill the movie's goals. Occasionally the lighting is bad, sometimes the characters cannot be heard clearly.

The movie, while imperfect, was well worth our time and money and quite enjoyable. History afficionados should consider it a must-see. I think it would also be worth it to take young girls to see the film, because it shows a woman comfortably wielding power and addressing difficult situations with grace and intelligence -- and in the end, it is Elizabeth's identity, morality and intelligence that matter most, not her beauty, wealth, or power.

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