And so Oscar® season begins in earnest. Cate Blanchett is returning to the role that made her a star and earned her first Academy Award nomination—Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. Elizabeth: the Golden Age is the kind of movie you don’t see in theatres until Oscar® ballots are about to be printed; a big budget period piece with big stars and laced with treachery and romance. It’s kind of like Pirates of the Caribbean but with a brain but nowhere near the blockbuster potential. It will, however, grab more Oscars® attention than Johnny and company.
Dust off the history books, we’re going back to 1585’s Europe. When the story rejoins Elizabeth she is facing attack from Spanish King Philip II (Jordi Molla) who is hell-bent to bring Catholicism back to England. Elizabeth must protect her country, but there is a distracting chink in her armor—a crush on the hunky poet-warrior Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen). Her sacred vow to her country precludes giving herself to anyone but royalty, so, in an effort to keep Raleigh close she plays matchmaker, setting him up with her nearest and dearest lady-in-waiting Bess (Abbie Cornish).
At her side throughout all this is trusted advisor Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush reprising his role from the first La Liz movie). As pressures mount abroad Walsingham helms the battle plans but must also keep on eye on unrest at home. Using a spy system that would make the CIA green with envy he unearths an assassination plot but unwittingly sets England up for devastation.
First the good stuff. Of late Blanchett seems to have the popular vote as “greatest living film actress,” supplanting Meryl Streep, and Elizabeth: The Golden Age won’t tarnish that platitude one bit. She delivers a strong willed performance that centers the movie, adding both humanity and vulnerability to a character often seen as stiff and steely. Her pale skin—she’s the most pallid performer this side of Casper the Friendly Ghost—is almost translucent, all the better to see the inner workings of Elizabeth, a complicated woman who ran a country but had trouble running her life. The Academy likes giving awards to actors playing real people, and just last year Helen Mirren took home a statue for playing a Queen, so look for Blanchett at Oscar® time.
Other performances impress—Rush is suitable stately, although underused, Owen exudes his usual sex appeal and seems to be channeling Errol Flynn while Abbie Cornish (soon to appear in Stop Loss opposite Ryan Phillippe) as Elizabeth’s BFF Bess provides a welcome addition of girl power to the proceedings. Costume and set design are both exemplary, and whoever created Blanchett’s elaborate wigs deserves a prize simply for their work with a curling iron.
Now, the bad. The 1998 Elizabeth I was tightly plotted and smart, two things the new film are not. Unfortunately The Golden Age throws most of the history out the window and allows plotlines seemingly borrowed from The Bold and the Beautiful to sneak in. Director Shekhar Kapur may have been trying make an accessible film about an historical figure, but oft times the lovey-dovey stuff feels like we’re watching an episode of The Hills: The Medieval Years.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a deeply flawed movie with good performances, marred by bad CGI—the shots of the invading Armada look like a bad paint-by-numbers renderings—a bombastic musical score and a juvenile story that feels like it should star characters named Biffy and Susie, not Sir Walter and Queen Elizabeth.