It is hard to wrap my head around the fact that a near-decade has passed since Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth (1998) won widespread art-house acclaim, grabbed seven Oscar nominations and catapulted Cate Blanchett to the A-list roster. Opulent, violent and arguably risky in the claims it made (many bristled at the suggestion that the Queen's self-conferred title of virginity was meant to be taken non-literally), the picture excited my senses as a fourteen-year-old, an impressionable and emerging cinephile and soon-to-be Oscar fanatic (yes, I spent the majority of the film open-mouthed and engaging in Cate worship like almost everyone else.) My love for the film has rightfully cooled in the years since, better able to appreciate some of the screenplay's hokey turns and spineless cultural depictions (for example, inviting the audience to share Elizabeth's ridicule of suitor Duke of Anjou for his cross dressing, orgy-participating antics - what a freak, right?!) Still, I felt immediately protective of the film from the moment I heard Kapur propose a seemingly-unecessary sequel, only a couple of years later. For one, how could one improve upon that glorious closing scene? ("Observe Lord Burghley: I am married. To England.") Blanchett too had the correct gut instinct; for years, she expressed reservations at revisiting the role that had made her a star. It's a shame Kapur and co-star Geoffrey Rush ultimately convinced her to return: not only does the sequel lack the bite of its predecessor, it resorts to the worst kind of preening Oscar-bait theatrics.
At the same time, I think that the communal dump critics are taking on The Golden Age is a smidgen over-the-top. This is not unwatchable costume-drama camp on the level of Memoirs of a Geisha for example, or even this year's demented 300, although everyone creatively involved here is undeniably guilty of preemptively buying into the film's hype (whether they are situated in front of the camera or behind it.) Kapur seems particularly stationed on cloud nine all the way through, pretty much repeating all his interesting ideas from the first installment. Not only has the man deliriously drunk the kool-aid of the queen's mythos, he's disturbingly bonkers about his lead actress, barely interested in exploring the talented actors supporting her. Meanwhile, screenwriters William Nicholson and Michael Hearst desperately milk all the religious and cultural tensions of the period all they can for the purposes of present-day commentary ("Which empire will fall and which one will rise?", Elizabeth ominously hints out loud, after being informed by a lame Nostradamus-like character that troubled times indeed lie ahead for England.) Yet in spite of all this, this critic found himself fairly tickled throughout, relishing the polished eye candy and having a laugh at Blanchett's ballsy gusto in this, her second stab at the part.
It's not at the level of what she accomplished in the first installment - not even close - but it's hardly the howling disaster some would have you believe it is. The actress rightly intuits there's room for shits and giggles at the figurehead's expense, but the part ultimately defeats her. Moreover, there isn't anything really meaty for her to explore here; Nicholson and Hearst ignore some of the most fascinating aspects of the regent (her love of the arts, her own writings, etc.) and instead resort to "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" temper tantrums and love triangle inanity. There are several scenes in which we are allowed to see the queen sans-wig and costume pomp, but these character reveals seem more forced than anything else. Even if one buys into the Elizabeth-as-drag-queen readings some are throwing about, I doubt that they are intentional on Kapur's part (how neat would that have been?) The director is obviously not interested in exploring the queen-as-performer, which would have resulted in a much more audacious and playful film than the one we have here. Moreover, Blanchett is much too young for the part. Taking place roughly thirty years or so following the first film's telling of her rise to power, the actress' porcelain visage just barely hints at the many years of bearing the weight of a crown. How neat would it have been to have Judi Dench (who acted circles around Blanchett last year in Notes on a Scandal) reprise her Oscar-winning turn from Shakespeare in Love as the troubled sovereign? Or if Kapur and company had waited at least until Blanchett had hit her early fifties before revisiting this personality? The "what ifs" in this regard are endless.
Even more frustrating than all of the above is the deterministic butt-kissing that Kapur/Nicholson/Hirst engage in, arrogantly suggesting that the Great Lord above is as smitten with this hysterical woman as everyone else is. Indeed, it is His will that seems to work through Elizabeth. In the film's outrageous climax, which depicts England's ships successfully blocking an invasion crafted by the Spain's Philip II (Jordi Mollà, pitching it to the rafters), a gust of celestial wind descends and snuffs out the flame on his candle. For you see, earlier in the film, the king had proclaimed that he is light while Elizabeth is darkness (way to show 'im, God!) In another bizarre instance, Kapur seems to suggest that divine intercession is what saves Elizabeth from an assassination attempt. Coming face-to-face with a would-be murderer in a church, the queen lifts her hands toward heaven and all obviously ends up in her favour. Kapur & co. are more about falling into uncomplicated hero(ine) worship than really looking at the figurehead through a sharper lens. Furthermore, it is difficult to know who is being elevated in the director's eyes: the queen or the celebrated actress embodying her? One of the much talked-about scenes is perhaps the most revealing about director and his muse: a nightgown-clad Blanchett stands atop a cliff following England's victory over the Spanish Armada while a heaven-sent breeze cradles her. You can't make this stuff up, and the possible insinuations to be made (whether intentionally meant or not) are just priceless.
For all this, I found The Golden Age a hoot, even when I wanted to hold my head in my hands and sigh for the missed opportunities. And for all my misgivings above, I cannot take it seriously, finding Kapur's indulgences and Blanchett's floundering in the lead engrossing. As well, the film has its minor pluses here and there that I have not touched upon; even if the cinematography (Remi Adefarasin) and art direction are overly-precious (did Elizabeth really have a map of Europe conveniently etched on the floor of her throne room?), the look is simply scrumptious throughout. In addition to Adesfarasin, most of the first film's major contributors are back for another go: Oscar-winner Jenny Shircore misses the boat on properly aging Blanchett, but otherwise does fine work (Abbie Cornish is so fresh and appropriately youthful.) Comments on Alexandra Byrne's costumes will likely focus on Blanchett's elaborate fopperies; they are great fun to look at, but the real delights are in the peripheral characters' threads. Editor Jill Bilcock keeps things moving at a fine pace, although the third act is an utter mess with the final battle depicted in fragmented, unclear pieces. The fault is perhaps not hers, but one wonders why the final showdown - built up for so long - comes across as so terribly anti-climactic and confusing. The score (jointly written by Craig Armstrong and A.R. Rahman) is bonk-you-over-the-head obvious with shrieking choirs, but I suppose that's part of the appeal. With all other production elements operating at such heightened registers, it's only fitting that the music follows suit.
Since this is Blanchett's show through-and-through, not many of the cast members get to make much of an impression; still, some are given more to do than others. Following her remarkable work in Candy last year, Cornish (as Elizabeth's most trusted lady-in-waiting Bess) continues to hint at a star in the making, while Clive Owen is dependably dashing as Raleigh. Geoffrey Rush slinks around and is given his own subplot involving a wayward brother, but nothing really compelling comes out of it. Unsurprisingly, the true revelation here is a frazzled Samantha Morton as Elizabeth's cousin Mary, who outshines everyone else with just about fifteen minutes of screen time. How much more rewarding would it have been to see these events (so overly familiar when explored through Elizabeth's perspective, especially with the recent HBO mini-series starring Helen Mirren) in the eyes of the doomed Scottish queen? Or any other character other than the English monarch? When looking at the offerings on display here, one is left to assume that the thought never occurred to anyone involved with this vanity project.
As a film: D+
As a guilty pleasure, with goodwill carrying over from Elizabeth: B