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Bogus Bess

Elizabeth: The Golden Age is leaden
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  October 10, 2007
1.5 1.5 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Elizabeth: The Golden Age | Directed by Shekhar Kapur | Written by Michael Hirst and William Nicholson | With Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Clive Owen, Abbie Cornish, Jordi Mollà, and Samantha Morton | Universal | 114 Minutes
“History,” Winston Churchill told us, “is written by the victors.” But history is also written by Hollywood. If we’re lucky, Hollywood gets the essentials right, shapes the details in an entertaining way, and, aware that history is forever unknowable, doesn’t take itself too seriously. Michael Curtiz’s 1940 film The Sea Hawk winked at the Elizabethan age, and you could never accuse Errol Flynn, Claude Rains, and Flora Robson of excess gravity. Fifty-four years later, John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love comported itself in similar fashion, with Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, and Judi Dench (“She’s been plucked since I saw her last, and not by you . . . Takes a woman to know it”) all reveling in Tom Stoppard’s witty script. Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age — the follow-up to his 1998 Elizabeth (a/k/a Elizabeth: The Virgin Queen) — is the Polonius of Elizabethan films: earnest, sententious, interminable. It’s all summed up in the difference between Geoffrey Rush’s feckless Philip Henslowe in Shakespeare and his dutiful Sir Francis Walsingham in the two Elizabeth films. On Oscar night, Shakespeare took Best Film, Best Actress (Paltrow), and Best Supporting Actress (Dench); the first Elizabeth won for Best Make-Up.

The second Elizabeth (look for Elizabeth: The Age of Anxiety in 10 years or so) starts up in 1585. The Virgin Queen (Cate Blanchett) is still virgin, at least by reputation, but her advisers haven’t given up hope of an heir to the throne, even though she’s now passed 50. Meanwhile, English Catholics are again plotting to put Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton) on the throne, with the help of Inquisition-mad Spain, where Philip II (Jordi Mollà) is assembling his Armada, and we see the English traitors being hunted down and tortured and strung up (though not drawn and quartered).

Elizabeth, however, has been distracted by the appearance of young explorer Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) at court. He woos her with sub-Stoppard aphorisms: “Do we discover the New World, or does the New World discover us?”; “The closer I come to death, the more I want to live”; “I have never known a woman like you”; “Why worry about tomorrow when today is all we have?” She replies in kind: “To tell you the truth, I’m very very tired of always being in control.” But it’s rosy-cheeked lady-in-waiting Elizabeth Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish) who loses control and goes to bed with Raleigh after he tells her, “We’re all human, Bess. We do what we can.” The queen’s distress is poignant — especially when we see, in a brief nude rear shot, what good shape she’s in — but far from realistic: whereas Owen is 43 and Blanchett 38, in 1585 Raleigh was 33 and Elizabeth 52, and in fact Raleigh and Throckmorton didn’t hook up till 1591.

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