In 1998, “Elizabeth” caused a sensation because Blanchett turns in an electrifying performance. Also, the film is stunningly gorgeous. And it continues our fascination with British royalty by depicting a small part of perhaps the most interesting monarch’s reign. It was also our first visit to this oft-filmed monarch’s life in a while, so it was interesting, refreshing and new to watch this director’s and this actor’s interpretation of the role. Since then, HBO produced a multi-part miniseries featuring Helen Mirren playing the same role. With more than six years between the two projects, we had enough time to give Mirren fresh eyes for her interpretation of the same monarch. The HBO project covers much of the same ground as 1998’s “Elizabeth” but also goes further, to show her facing down assassination attempts, Mary Stuart, the Spanish king and more. Now less than two years after this memorable turn, we have “The Golden Age” featuring Blanchett playing Elizabeth as she faces down assassination attempts, Mary Stuart and the Spanish King’s threats to invade England. Due to the proximity of the two films, “The Golden Age” draws unfavorable comparisons.
“The Golden Age” seems ‘light’ somehow. Like the force behind the story of the first film and the force of the production as a whole has been diluted. The film has more than one shot of Blanchett in an elaborate costume standing in the middle of a room as the camera circles her. This is interesting the first time, but when it happens a couple of times, it dilutes the power of this vision. We get it. Elizabeth has the weight of the country on her shoulders. And as queen, she gets to wear some amazing outfits. But when the shot is repeated, it seems designed to show off the costumes and appear to be filler rather than to help the story.
Blanchett is, as always, good. She is one of those actors who I think are incapable of giving a bad performance. Sure, they have appeared in bad films, but they are always interesting. As Elizabeth, she plays a character that seems tailor made for her, to accentuate the regal bearing of the actress. But in “The Golden Age”, many of Elizabeth’s best moments, her most powerful, were just portrayed by Mirren. Unfortunately, there are almost identical scenes and this really does “The Golden Age” and Blanchett a disservice.
Blanchett is a forceful personality and it is fun to watch her flirt and hold court. She really shows us many aspects of the monarch’s character and life. But we don’t get a feeling for the character’s Virgin Queen status. Yes, we see her suitors and there are a couple of mentions made of this fact, the Queen’s unmarried and unable to sire an heir, but it doesn’t seem to be the pressing need we have come to believe. Too bad, because this is a fairly important part of her life. And it was a big part of Mirren’s performance. Instead, “The Golden Age” concentrates on the impending conflict with the King of Spain.
Enter Clive Owen as Sir Walter Raleigh. Upon his arrival at Elizabeth’s court, he introduces himself and announces he has just returned from the New Land and named a colony Virginia, after the Queen. His gifts include potatoes and he brings two Native American Indians with him. But the impending threat of Spain changes Raleigh’s actions; initially, he seems attracted to the Queen, and she him, but then his affections turn towards a younger member of the Queen’s court, the Queen’s most trusted friend.
As Spain prepares their armada for war, Raleigh jumps into action and begins to help the smaller British fleet defend England. As the Spanish ships attack, Owen swings from ship to ship, channeling the spirit of Errol Flynn. He even appears a little like the former swashbuckler film hero. The actor brings a dashing quality to the character, making him a bit of a rogue, a bit of a hero, a bit of the bad boy. It is no wonder the Queen falls for him.
Geoffrey Rush returns as Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s advisor. As he is sick throughout most of the film, he mostly stands by her side, raising his arched eyebrow when he doesn’t agree or approve of something the monarch has said or done.
Rhys Ifans has a brief role as Robert Reston, a Catholic plotting to kill Protestant Elizabeth on behalf of the Catholic king of Spain. And Samantha Morton plays Mary Stuart, the woman at the center of many of Elizabeth’s headaches.
“The Golden Age” is beautiful to look at; the filmmakers have gone to great lengths to recreate the royal palaces and London of Elizabeth’s age. The ships in the Spanish and British fleets are also particularly impressive. During the battle between the two fleets, we get a real sense for what life was like on these ships. Life and death.
But the film fails to fully engage us in the story. If you go to see this film, you probably have at least a rudimentary grasp of the history of these events. So the film should not have to work hard to engage us in the lives of Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh and the Queen’s court. It should work hard to give us insight into the woman’s life, the woman’s thoughts, and the woman’s feelings. But instead, it seems to want to focus more on the action-packed parts of the story, to make it more of an action film. It is almost seems like the filmmakers would like to recast Elizabeth in the mold of Sarah Connor, the role created by Linda Hamilton in “The Terminator” films. This doesn’t work and detracts from the already interesting elements of the story.
“Elizabeth – The Golden Age” is a bit of a wash. It features a strong performance from Cate Blanchett, a dashing performance from Clive Owen and looks beautiful, but it doesn’t engage enough or give us enough insight into the monarch herself.