Partially reinventing the period movie, stylistically at least, almost as radically as Martin Scorsese reinvented the Biblical epic with his Last Temptation, Shekhur Kapur's account of the insecure early days of Elizabeth I's reign, Elizabeth, is a claustrophobic film set in a dark world of cold grey stone, alternating overhead shots with tight medium shots rather than stressing spectacle or glamour, more political thriller than costume epic. Indeed, with its bloody finale clearly inspired by The Godfather as Walsingham takes care of business for his Capo di tutti Capo, it's almost a mafia movie, with Cate Blanchett's star-making turn as Elizabeth filling in the Michael Corleone role as the heir apparent who must ruthlessly shed emotions and conscience to hold on to the throne. That journey from fresh-faced youth to impregnable white-faced icon gives the film a solid emotional arc that helps prevent it from becoming a simple series of confrontations and thwarted conspiracies, almost - but not quite - turning it into a tragedy of success rather than the usual tragedy of failure that is usually the lot of women in historical pictures (Anne of the Thousand Days, Mary Queen of Scots, Lady Jane, La Reine Margot, etc).
It's handsomely cast: Joseph Fiennes gives good shallow romanticism as Elizabeth's lover Dudley, Christopher Eccleston in his default misery guts mode makes a fine villain and there's a healthy cast that, if not bursting with A-listers, is at least filled with familiar faces, from Richard Attenborough, Fanny Ardant, Daniel Craig and Vincent Cassel in a dress to Edward Hardwicke, Kelly McDonald, James Frain, Emily Mortimer and Eric Cantona. Yet perhaps even more than Blanchett it's a magnificent Geoffrey Rush who often dominates the film from the sidelines as the Queen's loyal and utterly unscrupulous spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, a man who can seem all things to all men and women but is loyal only to her. Even when he's simply observing from afar he's a powerful presence in all the right ways, emanating a callous intelligence that is truly frightening.
It's strange that the sequel has been attacked by the Vatican as anti-Catholic when this first chapter probably occupies a high place on Ian Paisley's Ten Best List, what with Kathy Burke's psychotic "Bloody" Mary burning Protestants and threatening to do the same to her half-sister and John Gielgud's Pope (earning fifth billing for barely two minutes' screen time) despatching Daniel Craig's priest to assassinate the Protestant queen not merely with his blessing but his promises of a welcome in heaven for any who help in the task. Not entirely inaccurate considering the many attempts by Catholic kingdoms like France and Spain to topple or assassinate Elizabeth during her reign, but a little more historical context might have been helpful for viewers not so familiar with Tudor politics and the causes and effects of the Reformation. It doesn't help that Michael Hirst's screenplay refers to Marie de Guise (Ardant) as Mary, Queen of Scots, leading some to assume she's THE famous Mary, Queen of Scots rather than her mother, but then the problem of just how much historical information you can include before it gets in the way of the drama is always a difficult one in a period film: too little and you don't know what's happening, too much and you feel like you should be taking notes in case there's a test later. Instead, this is content to follow Elizabeth's rise at the expense not just of her enemies but also some of her early friendships, keeping it personal even as Elizabeth has to shed her own personality to create an icon a divided nation can follow. It's certainly not flawless, but it's never dull and often impressive.
At once more ambitious and less intriguing than its predecessor, Elizabeth: The Golden Age certainly isn't the abject disaster reviewers claimed on its theatrical release, although it's not nearly as engrossing as the original. Unfortunately, while Shekhar Kapur opens up the action and opts for a much lighter palate this time round, with at least a trailer's worth of striking visuals, the results are not particularly compelling. By focusing on the best-known part of the Virgin Queen's reign there's less of the constant sense of danger that marked its predecessor even though it amps up the threat by pitting her not against her own court but the might of the Spanish Empire and its Armada. Yet, being a sequel, it adheres to the `the same but different,' and there's certainly a strong element of déjà vu: the dastardly Catholics are still plotting her death, with Rhys Ifans and Samantha Morton taking on the Daniel Craig and Fanny Ardant roles of Jesuit hitman and conspiring Scottish queen. And, as before, history isn't well served, with the film offering the notion that Philip of Spain conspired to force Elizabeth to execute Mary Queen of Scots to give him an excuse for a holy war.
The script certainly could have been better, running down rather than gaining momentum as the Armada approaches and dropping the ball in many of the obvious slamdunks. Certainly if you're going to omit Elizabeth's famous "I may have the body of a weak and foolish woman, but I have the heart of a king" you need to come up with something with more guts and bravado than the tired horseback speech she gives to rally her troops. Even worse, the Armada itself is something of an anti-climax. The almost painting-like CGi effects aren't as much a problem in a film as occasionally stylised as this as are the all-too obvious budget limitations that reduce it to the odd running commentary that makes it somewhat akin to listening to a football game on the radio.
Performances are highly variable. Blanchett is suitably regal in the lead, with Geoffrey Rush and David Threlfall fare best among the courtiers, but Abbie Cornish makes little impression, Rhys Ifans just seems to be going through the motions and Samantha Morton is fairly awful as Mary. Both bland and risibly hammy at the same time, with her risibly overemphatic delivery she feels like a smug prefect in a school play playing up to the gallery rather than a credible conspiring monarch, giving easily the worst performance in the film even after the worst of her performance hit the cutting room floor. Yet the biggest surprise in the film is Clive Owen's Walter Raleigh.
If at first it seems disastrous casting the zombie-like Owen as the representation of the life and love Elizabeth can never have, but, amazingly, for once he almost rises to the occasion. Like many a bad actor he's utterly hopeless in the moments that aren't about him, looking bored when he's supposed to be listening, displaying complete disinterest in his scenes with Abbie Cornish and sleepwalking through the battle with the Armada, but for once he handles his monologues - the best writing in the film - surprisingly well, even changing his expression a few times, though quite why he chooses to play his early scenes with a bad American accent remains a mystery. It's not a perfect performance (the deleted scenes on the DVD show that his flat delivery and lack of timing botched a gift of a scene with Rush), but for the first time there are signs that if he was willing to really put in the work and had a director who wouldn't mistake talking in a bored Coventry accent for a performance he could be a capable jobbing supporting actor.
The 1.85:1 widescreen transfer is a bit disappointingly short on detail in some scenes, though there are a decent set of extras.