Elizabeth - The Golden Age
A Film by Shekar Kapur
written by William Nicholson and Michael Hirstis
The new film from Shekar Kapur with a screenplay by William Nicholson and Michael Hirstis is a victim of its own success. A visually beautiful movie with a fine cast and employing state-of-the-art CGI technology, it gets carried away with its own brilliance and undermines its effectiveness with over-embellishment.
The story documents the mid-career of England's Queen Elizabeth I, the daughter of Henry Tudor - Henry the Eighth - and his second wife, Anne Boelyn, whom Henry had executed on what are widely regarded as trumped-up charges of adultery. Elizabeth succeeded to the throne on the death of her older half-sister Mary (Bloody Mary) by virtue of a Succession Act pushed through Parliament by Oliver Cromwell.
The Act allowed Elizabeth - who had Protestant sympathies in contrast to Mary's devout Catholicism - to succeed her father and half-sister, in spite of the fact that she was "illegitimate" by Church standards, Henry never having been granted a dispensation by the church to divorce his first wife and marry Anne. This act was one of the contributing factors to the break between Henry and the Catholic Church, in that it contravened the Church's dicta on marriage, presuming to substitute man-made law for the Law of God. This whole "religious" conflict, which went on for more than a century in all, was the background against which Elizabeth reigned, as her Catholic cousin Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots) and many others used the religious issue as a cover to attempt to advance their own interests.
The period - and Elizabeth's life - were full of the stuff of high drama - intrigues, plots, battles, and mysteries. The best known events from this central period in the film - which was really the turning point for Elizabeth's reign, after which she was able to keep the country on an even keel for the next thirty years - are depicted. They include the execution of Mary Stuart, the subsequent Declaration of War against England by King Philip of Spain (Elizabeth's brother-in-law) and the end of that war in the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
The victory over the numerically superior Spanish fleet was an enormous morale booster for the English, and helped them overcome their partisan squabbling in uniting against a common enemy. Snatching victory as they did from the jaws of a very real possibility of defeat evoked a powerful wave of English nationalism, which Elizabeth was able to harness for her own ends. The destruction of the Spanish fleet, and the defeat of Spain as the major power in Europe opened the way for the rise of England as a great colonial power, in the New World and elsewhere.
The object of this little history lesson is to point out that Kapur and his writers had great material to work with. It was a turbulent era, when the actions of individuals had far-reaching consequences. It is somewhat unfortunate then that the filmmakers have chosen to take melodramatic license with history. Although they've told their (somewhat historically inaccurate) version of the story with passion and great style, their decision to try to "enhance" it with overblown imagery and exaggeration actually has the opposite effect.
The first hour or so of the film is quite fine. In establishing the characters and setting the scene, Kapur stays close to the narrative roots. There are some rather self-consciously "arty" sequences (and particularly camera angles) but in small doses these are effective and engaging. Kapur, however, seems to subscribe to the "if some is good, more will be better" theory, which leads him and his film astray into a kind of cinematic hyperbole not seen since the days of Dino DiLaurentis.
As a result, what the movie amounts to, in one aspect, is 21st Century "cheese." This isn't Velveeta, mind you, it's high-quality, artisan cheese, made from the best ingredients and "aged to perfection," but the overblown special effects, the melodramatic situations, the almost surrealistic camera work - which becomes increasingly labored as the film progresses, the booming and swelling music - all combine to push what could have been a fairly reasonable historical period piece over the edge into high camp.
One could argue that this may be a conscious choice, that Kapur is sending up the "Historical Epic" in a piece of work that would make Anthony And Cleopatra envious of its special effects and sweeping panoramas, shame Captain Blood with its swashbuckling, and "out Merchant-Irory" those masters of period detail with its costumes and sets. Or it may be that Kapur set out to revive - and evolve - the DiLaurentis aesthetic for the 21st Century. It makes a significant statement about the film that looking just at the work itself it's hard to make a judgment as to whether it is meant as satire, homage or as a serious consideration of its subject.
Kapur has assembled a fine cast, and they do mostly very good work here, but like the production as a whole, it seems they've been misled by their director. Geoffery Rush, as Elizabeth's long-time counsellor, Sir Francis Walsingham, gives the most restrained and therefore credible performance. The balance of self-interest and real commitment to his Queen, of political machination and idealism that Rush conveys gives a vivid sense of the political climate of the time, when superstition and religion were locked in a struggle with emerging Humanism, and a centuries old-tradition of Monarchy and hereditary privilege was just beginning to be shaken by the emergence of popular will and "democratic" ideals.
Clive Owen is put in the most difficult situation. His character - Sir Walter Raleigh - and actions are the furthest removed from historical fact. As such he becomes a bit of a cartoon character, a swashbuckling, charming romantic leading man in the mold of Errol Flynn. It's beyond his powers - although for his other roles it is clear that those powers can be formidable - to rise above those restrictions in this situation. He does swashbuckling and charming very well indeed, but there's a sense of contrivance (not surprising, since his story as told here is indeed contrived) that keeps the film from building the sense of believability it needs.
Cate Blanchett, an actress who has proved herself among the best of her generation, starts out strongly, conveying the multi-faceted character that Elizabeth must in fact have been, but Kapur can't resist fetishising her, using camera work, special effects and imagery to transform the difficult and messy reality that must have been Elizabeth's struggle - most especially as a woman in a man's world - to resist the various forces that sought to manipulate and control her, into - by the end of the film - a vivid and fascinating, but clearly artificial fantasy.
While it's useful to an understanding of the mind-set of the era to convey the idea of the monarch as "sacred object" as much as a person, in Kapur's retelling he seems to become so fascinated by the objectified symbol that he loses sight of the human being - which is the most engaging part of the story. Blanchett takes direction well, and it appears that she worked hard to give Kapur exactly what he asked for. But what he asked for ends up draining the humanity and therefore the compelling interest, from the story.
The ensemble cast acquit themselves well. They provide solid support for the leading players when called upon to do so, and several stand out in individual scenes, including Abbie Comish as Bess Throckmorton, Elizabeth's lady-in-waiting and Raleigh's paramour and eventual wife. William Huston shines as the oily Don Gereau de Spes, and Jordi Mollą is the embodiment of self-righteous ambition as the King Phillip. The excellent Samantha Morton plays Mary Stuart, and gives her an interesting interpretation as pious fraud, political pawn and dignified victim of the plots of others. Unfortunately Kapur stages an execution scene for her that is so melodramatically drawn out as to verge on the comic, and encourages a degree of scenery-chewing that serves neither her character nor the story very well.
The production values are of the highest quality. The sets and settings are beautifully set-up and appointed. Of the films I've seen this year, this one seems a shoe-in for the "best costumes" Oscar, not to mention "best hairdressing." The look is exquisite, each shot a careful compostion, with daring camera angles and perspectives, and sweeping movements, but over the course of the film it becomes too much a display of technical brilliance and the reality of the characters - which is what would move us and stay with us - gets lost in the glare.
The cinematography, by Remi Adefarasin, is certainly a tour-de-force, but it overpowers the object it should be serving. An underwater shot, for instance, from deep below, of Raleigh diving to escape the fire he's set among the Armada, looks up to the surface to see a horse swimmng by above him. It's a brilliant shot technically, and visually it could easily have been an image from a Fellini film, but in the context, it's simply way over the top. Not to mention the fact that the historical Raleigh was assigned to lead the costal defenses, and never got closer to the Spanish Fleet than Tillbury Head.
Likewise the CGI effects, although brilliantly and seamlessly integrated, are just too beautiful and carefully choreographed to seem real. They are another factor in creating the feeling of watching a fantasy film or magical realist fable, rather than something with pretensions to making historical sense. The music, in keeping with the rest of the tone, often careens over into the bombastic and hysterical.
All of which is not to say that this film isn't fun to watch. It is. Once you dull your critical senses and just allow Kapur's exuberant excesses to be enjoyed for their own sake, there's a lot to enjoy. If there's no more "soul" or depth of meaning to the film than to a DiLaurentis production, there's a heck of a beautiful body, and a shimmering surface that it is a pleasure - if ultimately a somewhat empty pleasure - to observe.
That's my take on it. What's yours?