Elizabeth: The Golden Age (PG-13) has been panned and criticized very widely by the vast majority of movie critics. I have read several dozen reviews online and most found the film a poorly written soap opera at best. I profoundly disagree. Maybe it is my own history background and maybe it is my love of pageantry but I rather liked the film. I would not rate it a “must see” but you could do much, much worse, especially if you have an interest in a very important time period in English history.
Starring Cate Blanchett (Queen Elizabeth), Clive Owen (Sir Walter Raleigh), Geoffrey Rush and Abbie Cornish, the film runs for only 115 minutes. It is directed by Shekhar Kapur, who also directed Elizabeth (1998), the film which covered the early years of the Queen’s famous reign and how she came to power. Sequels are often built on smaller budgets, and this film is no exception. For this reason alone one expects less than the earlier film delivered, which was itself quite magnificent at the time.
“The Golden Age” refers to the middle period of Elizabeth’s reign, the time when she had to fight Spain and have Mary Queen of Scots, her cousin, put to death for treason against the crown. These were the years when her power was consolidated and her impact on the future well-established. The imprisonment of Mary, considered by Catholics to be the rightful queen of England, threatened the peace and future of England. “The Golden Age” also refers to the period of Elizabeth’s reign when she was widely recognized as “The Virgin Queen.” Her prospects for marriage, and thus for an heir to the throne, were growing very slim. During this period she was growing more and more comfortable in her role, which was more that of a male than a female in this culture and time period.
This new film wonderfully illustrates Elizabeth’s humanity, perhaps even more so than some would desire. But that is the point. She was quite human yet she was also an effective and important Queen, perhaps the most important in English history. The sexual nature of an unmarried Queen is explored in various ways. Tempted by Sir Walter Raleigh she realizes that she cannot have him, bound as everyone is to tradition and title, but that doesn’t prevent her from playing very silly matchmaking games between Raleigh and her attendant Bess (Abbie Cornish).
Like it or not this was a time period in which Catholic and Protestant contested their power in various states throughout Europe. Spain was Catholic and England was Protestant. The showdown came when King Philip II of Spain sent the Armada to defeat England and to capture and kill Elizabeth. (There are some historical inaccuracies here and there, such as the suggestion that Philip wanted Mary Queen of Scots to die so that he could have his reason to attack England.) Historical dramas can be stilted so as far as films go. There are elements of this in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, but Kapur manages to keep the viewer interested in both the conversation and the plots until the end. Blanchett has mastered what might be called the androgynous nature of Elizabeth’s persona while at the same time she also demonstrates that she longed to know love from a loving man.
Some reviewers think the battle scenes between the English and the Armada are ineffective and thus do not work well. Again, I disagree. The director brings fresh vision to the craft and the pageantry is suitable for the time and historical events themselves. Costume drama and period pieces are not easy to do well, much less on small budgets.
One of the most moving scenes in the film is when Elizabeth is faced with the advance of the world’s most powerful naval force, and defeat seems almost certain. Here she makes a stirring speech about the need for England to win this day if freedom and conscience are to be preserved. I do not mean this as an anti-Catholic comment but I think history proved her to be correct in that sentiment and we can all be glad that Catholic Spain did not win this war!
Elizabeth: The Golden Age feels at times like two movies at once. There is the intrigue and romance of the court while there is a pretty powerful study in statecraft and power situated in the 16th century going on at the same time. It was a time of bloody wars over religion and the future of a free Europe and eventually, a place called America, was at stake. Even if this film is a “soap-opera” in some way it is a very interesting one if you value history seen in dramatic film.