Painterly images and beautiful scenery cannot hide limp-dick kitsch of Elizabeth: The Golden Age, no matter how much pageantry they throw in front of you. It’s a vibrant production in service of historical revisionism and soap opera fable. It screams to the heavens and clatters like thunder while dipping into a particularly squeamish form of English jingoism. How did we come down so hard from 1998’s Elizabeth to this sound-and-fury sequel?
Maybe because the first film was about the transformation of a young girl into a symbolic figurehead, digging down deep into the psychological complexity of how that transition happens. The fires used to forge a woman into a monarch gave way to how that monarch became a frigid, rigid, unpleasant freak show. Then there’s a major problems with the presentation of the Spanish and Catholics as slobbering, zealous ghouls out to purge the Protestants from England. The Golden Age would more accurately be described as The Gilded Age.
There’s only so much that frilly frocks, elegant makeup and hairdos, and artful cinematography can be used to mask the religious fervor that permeates throughout. Elizabeth is filmed in swirling camera movements, haloed light, and framed in a style similar to iconographic religious art in the Renaissance. It’s so damn ridiculous and no one seems to notice just how borderline camp it all plays as. Except it believes in its pretentions very deeply and that dampens some of the inadvertent enjoyment from the slow-motion shot of a white horse leaping off of a sinking ship during a heated battle.
At least The Golden Age is mainly well cast. Cate Blanchett goes big and broad, breathing flirty, demanding, exacting life to a stodgily written figure that the script tries to beatify and entomb simultaneously. Clive Owen and Abbie Cornish generate erotic bluster as the young lovers, while Rhys Ifans glowers as a hammy villain. The best of the supporting players are Geoffrey Rush, a continual MVP in any film he’s in, and an underused Samantha Morton, as a grandiose Mary, Queen of Scots. Not all of the players are doing good work though. Look no further than Eddie Redmayne, an actor with two operating modes, one of quiet, skilled technique and the other all nervous twitches and fluttering. He tends to indulge the second method more often than the first, and that is the case here.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age is pomp and circumstance for two hours. There’s nothing much on its brain aside from eye-gouging pageantry. At least returning director Shekhar Kapur provides plenty of ample superficial spectacle. There’s pleasures to be had in watching only for the visuals. Just mute the omnipresent soundtrack and purple dialog. Except for maybe the sight of Cate Blanchett smacking Abbie Cornish while screaming, “My bitches wear my collars!” in full-on drag queen mode.