In Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), Cate Blanchett reprises her role as the Virgin Queen, but as the fully realized myth she has created by the conclusion of the previous film. Shekhar Kapur also returns to direct, along with writer Michael Hirst, and cinematographer Remi Aderfarasin, but you wouldn’t recognize that the films were done by the same crew since this second film falls flat when compared to the first.
The Golden Age begins with a mature Queen Elizabeth, on the precipice of the Spanish Armada invasion, perhaps Queen Elizabeth’s most famous historical event and the one for which she is most eulogized. Elizabeth must contend with the threat of war from Spain, plots against her by the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton), and assassins in general who view her as either a usurper or a heretic. Spain is at the root of all plots, as in both films, and they receive the bulk of the blame for Elizabeth’s endangerment.
As with the last film, there is a love interest for the Queen, but in The Golden Age, it is Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen). The chemistry present in the first film between Blanchett and Fiennes is sadly missing with Owen. It’s not that they are both older, although the love of youth is certainly romanticized in the first film. It is mainly that Owen’s character, Raleigh tries too obviously to woo her to gain her favor to use for his trips across the Atlantic. Fiennes’ character was ambitious, yes. But the audience believes that, at least at first, he loved her before her crown. In Owen’s case, even Elizabeth herself notes Raleigh’s ambition, so the audience has a harder time believing she could fall for him when she herself knows that he is looking only for financial support from her. This possibly could have been rectified by script edits, but the result is a false romance that from the onset doesn’t excite like the prior.
In fact, most of the film misses that certain je ne sais quoi that made the first film exciting. Ultimately, the film lacks suspense. Previously, this was masterfully created by the deep, dark shadows and tones in the first film. While it would make sense that Elizabeth is in the light in the second film, in control and not waiting in the shadows to ascend and so the film reflects this cinematographically, by doing so it lessens the filmic experience to a simple costume drama rather than an immersive historical fiction experience. Having the same cinematographer also complicates this as it would be easy to blame a change in this position. However, that is not the case and so the conscious choice to present so many dangers to Elizabeth’s life, but not have that reflected more in the play between light and dark in scenes is disappointing and a clear missed opportunity. Even as ’storm clouds’ are on the horizon, the film is still oddly well lit and bright.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age reads more like a checkbox of Elizabeth’s accomplishments during this period of her life as opposed to an intrigue into understanding her decisions and motivations. The most compelling moments of the film come with Morton’s Queen Mary Stuart. Morton gives an amazing performance, and it is her story that is most interesting, wondering exactly how she gets caught in collusion to commit treason. Her Mary Stuart is a cross between zealot, a manipulator, and a slightly unhinged woman frustrated by her lack of power.
In fact, the strength of the film relies on character actors like Morton, Geoffrey Rush, Rhys Ifans, Tom Hollander, and Eddie Redmayne who each give wonderful performances. Trying to piece together their destinies and roles in this historical drama is what keeps the viewer’s attention during the film. Disappointingly, this is not their stories and it is visually dull, save one scene between Blanchett and Redmayne that I won’t ruin for you here.
In any historical fiction film, the audience must suspend disbelief about the historical outcomes to be wrapped up in the nuanced moments not historically documented. Thus, the audience wonders what small intimate events led to huge historical events and changes. In this film, that seems wantonly lacking. We know Elizabeth will not marry, that Mary Stuart will be executed, and that the Armada will drown. But the audience must wonder how exactly, in the most private and undocumented of moments, decisions were made that led to these outcomes. These nuanced moments are not explored enough in the film and so the audience is left moving from one checkbox to the next waiting for a secret moment that lends insight, only to be disappointed when the credits roll.