Lowdown: The story of Queen Elizabeth losing her humanity to become a queen, and then becoming a human while already an established queen.
Elizabeth is a film I have watched once, on laserdisc, soon after it was released back in 1998. I didn't remember much of it; what I did remember was that I had a really hard time understanding what was going on, I had a really hard time understanding the dialog, and overall I found the film to be very boring.
Times have changed, though; by now Elizabeth has had herself a sequel that is now available for renting, and given that we wanted to rent the sequel we thought we should give old Bettie a go, too.
Times didn't only change for Elizabeth: I have changed just as well. My taste in films is now significantly different, and overall I am significantly different to the person I was ten years ago. Elizabeth proved to be an interesting test of the changes I went through with time.
For a start, I know much more about the background of Elizabeth's story. The story begins as the queen that reigned over England after the death of Henry the 8th is a Catholic that is married to the ultra Catholic king of Spain (the dude with the inquisition). That queen is sick and without a son of her own, so when she dies Elizabeth, Henry's daughter, becomes queen. Elizabeth is a Protestant, and the conflict that ensues between the about to be kicked out Catholics who don't like Elizabeth and Elizabeth's loyal protestants is at the center of the film. Overall, this goes a lot into explaining why I didn't understand much when I saw Elizabeth for the first time, ten years ago: At the time I didn't know much about the gulf that lies between Catholics and Protestants, pretty much to this day; to me they were all Christians. Not that I can now say why this gulf exists; both sects seem just as bad to me, with the main difference being who has the political clout (and let me just say this: the Pope doesn't really impress me with the way he yields his power). Watching Elizabeth certainly made me realize how lucky I am to be living in an age where reason has enough power to relegate the stupidity that is religion into the level of an ornament that is resurrected during public holidays.
Back to Elizabeth, the film basically follows her character as she matures into a queen. She has her royal surroundings with their politics and the perceived necessity to marry for political reasons, her loyalists (Geoffrey Rush), a lover (Joseph Fiennes), and a lot of plots against her to contend with; and in order to establish herself she goes through a process of becoming less and less human and turning into what was dubbed by the film as "the virgin queen". And it's all interesting and quite intriguing, now that I know the setting, now that I watch a DVD with subtitles, and now that I am much more inclined towards dramas than I was before; but the ending comes too quickly as all of a sudden Elizabeth disposes of all threats to her majestic self.
The Golden Age has similar themes but is much more simplistic. Now Elizabeth is an established queen, but the king of Spain still wants to get rid of her because of her religious inclinations. He initiates the building of the Spanish Armada, while back in England Elizabeth is fretting around with Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), an explorer adventurer with colonies in America and an inclination to pirate Spanish ships that serves as the token male in the film because it seems like the filmmakers didn't think Blanchett can carry the film on her own without a man by her side.
The plot progresses along no particular route, and The Golden Age feels more like a collection of golden shots. That is, it is made of lots of nicely shot scenes, featuring cameras stuck in exotic places such as behind people's asses and such. No, they don't really go that far, but it does seem as if the director is so keen on impressing us he overdoes it.
Characterization in Golden Age is extremely weak. First there is repetition: In Elizabeth the first, Rush's character is portrayed as particularly vicious when he slits the throat of a young boy that came to assassinate him but couldn't go ahead with it; Golden Age has a fairly similar scene featuring an older Rush. And then there is the good vs. evil technique: The king of Spain is always shown murmuring in rather dark settings, whereas Elizabeth and Raleigh are always well lit and bright. In short, people become good because they look good rather than do good, and vice versa. According to the filmmakers, the king of Spain should have worked on his lighting rather than his armada, which - as everyone knows - has failed.
Interestingly enough, I have recently read a book about the Elizabeth period. From what I read, it seems obvious that many key elements of the Elizabethan period were not accurately reproduced in the film. Specifically, the sea battle with the Spanish Armada is significantly different from its acknowledged historical account: it is now believed that the Spanish Armada was mostly a collection of merchant ships rather than fine tuned battle ships. Then again, that would have made the English victory a bit of a lesser one, and one doesn't want to extinguish the flame of one's own film.
Acting is problematic in both films. While Cate Blanchett has rightfully made her claim to fame with Elizabeth, some of the casting decisions are rather weird. A lot of the actors simply don't fit into their roles, and some of the actors are just bad. Take, for example, Eric Cantona, who plays the French ambassador in the first film: I liked him as a player and I really think he was one of football's very best all round entertainers, but as an actor he sucks. Overall I would argue that the poor casting is just a symptom of the bigger problem of poor direction: Especially in Golden Age, director Shekhar Kapur seems more interested in creating fancy artistic shots than creating a film with a meaning and a plot.
Best scene: As the first Elizabeth starts, we see three Protestants being burnt at the stake for their "crimes". The scene is quite effective in setting up the film and telling us what the conflict around Elizabeth is all about, and as I said - it shows you just how mad religion was until it was tamed by rationalism. Sadly, religion is yet to be subdued.
Worst scene: Elizabeth gives her pre-war speech to her troops before the Spanish Armada arrives in Golden Age. We've seen Mel Gibson do this very effectively, we have seen Viggo Mortensen do it not half as well in Return of the King, but Blanchett is just pathetic.
Don't ask me why, but the picture is Elizabeth shows its age with way too much analog noise. The sound, however, is excellent for a mainly dialog driven drama - it's quite powerful.
Golden Age, on the other hand, is nothing special: the picture is nice but not brilliant, and so is the sound - standard issue for today's age.
The Pope has recently declared that "limbo" no longer exists, but I would rate Elizabeth as a film stuck in the limbo between 3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars. It is good and it is intriguing, but it is let down by some acting and direction quirks.
Golden Age is just a nice collection of shots with not much of a plot - 2.5 out of 5 stars.
Update from 14/8/14:
Having recently re-reviewed Elizabeth, I thought I'd drop a word about The Golden Age here, too.
This time around I could not avoid noting the triple force of the Australian contingency presented in the cast, courtesy of Abbie Cornish joining the ranks of Rush and Blanchett. The video gamer in me also noted Elizabeth's armour was not your average boob enhancer of an armour that our current culture likes to dress women in, but rather an effective armour instead.
More to the point, this time around I have found The Golden Age to be a decent movie. If I have to fault it with anything then it is it being the perfect sequel, in the sense that it is a pretty much exact copy of the original Elizabeth that has been pasted a decade or two onwards (both in real time and in Elizabethan times).
This time around I rated it at 3 out of 5, if not more.