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Weaknesses tarnish ‘The Golden Age’

Claire Reising | Monday, November 5, 2007

In one hour and 54 minutes, Queen Elizabeth I faces unappetizing marriage proposals, schemes to steal her throne, religious conflict in England, an assassination plot, the Spanish armada and a love triangle involving Sir Walter Raleigh.

If that sounds like too much to include in one movie, that’s probably because it is.

While “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” provides an entertaining array of dramatically-enhanced incidents in the Virgin Queen’s reign, this sequel is no match for its darker, more creative predecessor.

1998’s “Elizabeth” focused on the queen’s ascent to power and cutthroat Renaissance politics. Unlike that film, the sequel’s plot thins due to its large scope. Opening scenes in “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” establish enmity between England and Spain, as Spain’s King Philip (Jordi Mollà) denounces Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) as a heretic and an illegitimate ruler of England. Meanwhile, Elizabeth faces a growing threat from Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton), who is next-in-line for the British throne. To further complicate her situation, the virgin Queen battles an attraction to the dashing Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), but can marry only for political – rather than personal – reasons. The plot draws from a decade of Elizabeth’s reign and includes an epic naval battle and a soap opera-worthy love affair. This constant movement between different elements of the plot impedes director Shekhar Kapur’s attempts to develop a focused story.

Although the plot lacks intensity, viewers can enjoy the elaborate royal costumes and scenery. Costume designer Alexandra Byrne, whose résumé includes “Finding Neverland,” creates an impressive wardrobe for Blanchett’s Queen Elizabeth, from the flowing gowns she wears in court to the suit of armor she dons as she rallies the English troops. The scenery emphasizes the grandeur of Elizabeth’s reign, aiming for glamour over historical accuracy, and the castle rooms are brighter and more spacious than they were in the 1998 film.

In addition to the extravagant costume and set designs, “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” has a strong cast. But the actors sometimes seem constrained in their roles. Geoffrey Rush returns as Elizabeth’s adviser and spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. In the previous film, Rush’s conniving, Machiavelli-quoting character stole several scenes and gains the audience’s respect as he becomes indispensible to the new queen. While he still employs brutal methods to ensure Elizabeth’s security in this film, his acting is less animated, and he fails to reach his full potential.

Clive Owen is also underused, and his role as Walter Raleigh is more like his static character in 2004’s “King Arthur” than his thoughtful performance in last year’s “Children of Men.” Owen becomes little more than Elizabethan eye-candy as he simultaneously seduces the queen and her lady-in-waiting (Abbie Cornish).

Despite the film’s large and impersonal scope, Blanchett manages to provide a multi-faceted representation of Queen Elizabeth. But her performance is less dynamic than her previous one. The first role depicted Elizabeth’s transformation from an idealistic, passionate young woman into a shrewd, dignified queen, but here the transformation is already complete.

Viewers can sympathize with Blanchett’s character, however, as her morals conflict with the actions she must take, making her weighty decisions difficult. Also, Blanchett powerfully shows Elizabeth’s inner turmoil when she must relinquish a relationship with Raleigh to uphold her duties as queen.

Despite Blanchett’s strong performance, Kapur sometimes turns her character into a figurine with excessive artistic techniques. Several scenes consist of a still shot of Elizabeth, with dramatic choral music blaring in the background. If used sparingly, this technique could accentuate the queen’s power; with overuse, it loses its effect and becomes tedious.

Even though “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” has some strong elements, what could be a compelling study of Queen Elizabeth’s character gets lost in the immensity of the plot. The film shows that no amount of glamorous scenery, action-packed battles or scandalous love affairs can substitute for a streamlined plot and solid characters.