Monday, October 22, 2007

ELIZABETH - THE GOLDEN AGE - absurdly anachronistic

Spain intends to place Mary Stuart on our country's throne, and I am to be assassinated. Does this sound familiar?  Shekhar Kapur's ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE is an unworthy successor to his original depiction of Elizabeth I.

It depicts the era in Elizabeth's reign (the late 1580s) where she ordered the execution of Mary Stuart for treason and faced off the Spanish Armada. But it plays fast and loose with history and has none of the narrative drive of its predecessor. The production design is handsome, of course, but almost everything else is off-key. The score is manipulative and repetitive - endless high-pitched violins. The photography consists of endless slow pans and tableaux. The high-class actors walk through their roles looking, for the most part, bored. This is especially true of Tom Hollander and Clive Owen. The following actors are uncertain in their accents: Samantha Morton as the Scottish Mary Stuart, Clive Owen as Sir Walter Raleigh (bizarrely, as he's playing an Englishman), and Abbie Cornish as Elizabeth Throckmorton. And other great British actors are wasted in small parts of no consequence, notably David Threlfal as the court astrologer, Rhys Ifans as a Jesuit conspirator and the interesting young Eddie Redmayne as an assassin.

Cate Blanchett is fine as Elizabeth but her talent is wasted on a meandering script with anachronist dialogue. For the first hour of the film she indulges in a faintly homo-erotic, voyeuristic relationship with Walter Raleigh and her lady-in-waiting. She says absurdly modern and whiny things like, "I would love not to be in control all the time." To which Walter Raleigh improbably replies, "You eat and drink control!" There's also a ham-fisted attempt at modern political relevance. The Catholics are depicted as dangerous religious fundamentalists. English politics is seen as a trade-off between the rule of law and safety. Very Global War on Terror.

The second half of the film picks up. Elizabeth frets about whether or not she should order Mary Stuart's execution. Mary steals the show with a melodramatic execution scene. And then we are on to the Spanish Armada, where Philip of Spain attempts a naval invasion of England in order to put a Catholic on the throne. Shekhar Kapur clearly cannot direct action sequences for toffee, which is especially sad in an era when CGI and directorial vision can combine to give us great naval sequences. See, for example, the MASTER AND COMMANDER film. By contrast, Kapur never quite captures the majesty and excitment of a naval battle and doesn't even succeed in getting across the basics of what actually happened when the Spanish attempted to invade. You get the fireships and you get the Tilbury speech but you never understand the importance of the weather; Sir Francis Drake's superior tactics despite the fact the he commanded the inferior fleet; or the importance of the Spanish cutting their anchor lines. The whole Irish coast disaster is also ommitted. Absurdly, it is Sir Walter Raleigh who is depicted as the hero rather than Drake. And most incredibly, Elizabeth is depicted as giving her famous Tilbury speech astride a horse in full armour!

Ah well, what can we say. Hollywood is not under obligation to give us historical truths. But the fantasy it substitutes for truth should at least be compelling. Instead, in ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE, we have a mish-mash of fact and idiocy that is neither intellectually satisfying nor emotionally engaging.

ELIZABETH - THE GOLDEN AGE played Toronto 2007 and is on release in the US. It opens in Portugal, Iceland, Italy, Norway, Sweden and the UK on November 2nd and in Finland and Spain on November 9th. It opens in Australia, New Zealand, Russia and Denmark on November 15th and in Egypt, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia and Turkey on November 23rd. It opens in Bulgaria on November 30th and in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands in December 2007. It opnes in Singapore and Brazil in January 2008 and in Argentina and Mexico in February.

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