October 18, 2007

Elizabeth unable to hide heavy plot behind ruffles

It seemed to me that the preview for Elizabeth: The Golden Age was oddly split: courtly intrigues, a slice of Clive Owen, then suddenly loud emotional music, the queen in full armor, and a war with the Spanish patterned on a plotline vaguely like that of Miracle, the ice hockey movie. Not that it was a bad preview—it was a great attention-grabber, actually—but I thought that somewhere along the line an editor got a little carried away. Surely the movie would be more subtle and cohesive than a heavy-handed woman/warrior duality. After all, the prequel to this film, Elizabeth, was critically acclaimed, wildly successful, and just barely lost the best actress Oscar to Gwyneth Paltrow.

Unfortunately, the trailer is unflinchingly loyal to the film as a whole, and for all its good performances and beautiful scenery, sloppy plotlines prove to be its undoing.

We see Elizabeth at the height of her power, more sure of herself than ever but beset by troubles from every side. The film successfully relates the crushing pressure placed on the Queen of England, and Cate Blanchett does an extraordinary job of portraying brittle fragility that is both mesmerizing and painful to watch. With all her maturity and experience, Elizabeth has the crackling vulnerability of a teenage girl. Blanchett’s greatest feat is her ability to allow the audience to feel the weight of the crown as Elizabeth does.

In fact, performances as a whole are not the problem for Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Geoffrey Rush is pitch-perfect as always, smoothly resuming his earlier character and allowing for more emotional depth in the face of political apocalypse and family turmoil.

Samantha Morton parlays her current status as screen queen of melancholy into a compelling portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, with just the right amount of Scotch burr and sense of entitlement to the English throne.

Discerning viewers will also be interested to see Tom Hollander (Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice) in a small but delicious role as her prison guard. The one character who cannot be saved, however, no matter how Clive Owen tries, is Sir Walter Raleigh, dashing privateer and Elizabeth’s new crush.

Raleigh is clichéd and overblown, spouting lines that might sound better in a CW pilot than in a feature film. Furthermore, his character highlights the incongruous plot lines that never feel at ease with one another. His flirtation with Elizabeth is mixed unthinkingly with scenes of an awkward Swedish suitor, a plotting assassin, a greedy Spanish king, and a scheming Scottish queen. Corny moments in the beginning (mostly Raleigh’s fault) are inappropriate for the rest of the film, do nothing for the characters, and only trip up the tempo.

There seem to be several action climaxes, and their frequency drains the emotional poignancy that might have come from the major victory over the Spanish Armada. It’s as if suspense threw a party and forgot to show up.

As a consolation prize, as is often the case with rambling period movies, the makeup and costumes are extraordinary. Every regal red wig is more elaborate than the last, and instead of flushed cheeks, Elizabeth opts for heavy white foundation and the conscious choice to be awe-inspiring rather than beautiful.

The Queen is always clothed in billowing gowns straight from the Technicolor factory, and rather than being mere eye candy, the costumes nicely highlight Elizabeth’s total control and political savvy in her role as monarch. When you’re wearing neon purple, it’s hard for people not to pay attention to you.

There is certainly a great film somewhere in Elizabeth: The Golden Age—it simply hasn’t been allowed to come out yet. The movie is confused rather than awful, a tragedy of editing if ever there was one. It’s as if the director held his breath and hoped the electric costumes would distract us from serious shortcomings elsewhere. So in the end, we are left with solid actors, a confederacy of stories, and some scenes oddly reminiscent of early ’90s music videos. Not the end of England, but certainly no one’s golden age.