Dir: Shekhar Kapur UK, 2007. 114 mins
It seemed an impossible hope that The Golden Age could match the achievements of its illustrious predecessor. Elizabeth (1998) was a huge international success that earned 7 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and confirmed the radiant star-quality of Cate Blanchett. That's a tough act to follow. Against the odds, The Golden Age is a sequel and an equal that delivers another stirring historical drama, exploring key moments that defined the life of a nation and the reign of an extraordinary monarch. It should easily repeat the international box-office performance of Elizabeth .
It may not match the tally of Oscar nominations but it can hope for recognition in several categories including screenplay and Best Actress. Blanchett's performance is truly majestic and the Academy might wish to make amends for not giving her the award ten years ago, assuming they can be persuaded to reward an English monarch called Elizabeth for the second year in a row.
Tradition would suggest that only a Die Hard or a Rush Hour can provide the basis of a lucrative franchise but there has always been an insatiable fascination with the life of Elizabeth 1. Bette Davis played the character in two films (The Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex (1939) and The Virgin Queen (1955)) and Glenda Jackson played the monarch in both the BBC television series Elizabeth R (1971) and the theatrical feature Mary, Queen Of Scots (1972). Blanchett's performance certainly deserved an encore even if she is still too young to play a monarch who would be entering her fifties at the time of the events portrayed in The Golden Age.
The new film is set in 1585 with Elizabeth a confident ruler of independent mind and resolute spirit. She has never married and the matter of an heir has become pressing. She acknowledges that the demands of duty take precedence over all other considerations. The threat to her rule now comes from the Catholic King Philip 11 of Spain who hungers for the kind of regime change that would replace the Protestant Elizabeth with the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots (Morton). The challenge to her heart comes from the dashing explorer Walter Raleigh (Owen) who beguiles her with his tales of the New World and adventure on the high seas, offering a glimpse of a life and a soulmate that she will never allow herself to experience. Personal and political matters intertwine as Spain declares a holy war and sends an Armada to defeat the English.
Similar in many respects to its predecessor, The Golden Age continues to explore the cost of power and the sacrifices made for the good of a nation. Political intrigue and international affairs dominate but the film's best moments come as the cautious Elizabeth finds herself in danger of losing her heart to Raleigh. Blanchett and Owen have a terrific chemistry together that gives full credence to the notion that Elizabeth has finally met a man she considers an equal.
Reuniting several of the creative team behind Elizabeth, the film is beautifully photographed by Remi Adefarasin in the manner of paintings from the period with dark, treacly interiors illuminated by the glow of candle flames or the play of sunlight on glass. The intelligent script manages to compress complex events into an accessible, well-paced narrative peppered with memorable characters and quotable lines. Only a few instances of obvious CGI effects reveal the relatively modest resources spent on such a lavish endeavour. The score also tends towards the bombastic in its more stirring passages.
A return to form for director Shekhar Kapur after the commercial disappointment of The Four Feathers (2002), The Golden Age is extremely well-cast with Geoffrey Rush returning in his role as watchful protector Sir Francis Walsingham and Abbie Cornish giving an impressive supporting performance as court favourite Bess. Owen invests Raleigh with the kind of charm and rugged masculinity that can easily withstand comparisons with Errol Flynn's Essex and has enough telling moments to make him a viable Best Supporting Actor Oscar candidate.
Blanchett continues to astonish, creating a monarch who is wise and witty, haughty and hurt - but above all human. It is a luminous, multi-faceted performance that merely confirms that we are experiencing a performer in her prime. The greatest obstacle to Oscar glory for The Golden Age might be her own virtuoso performance in I'm Not There which has already won her the Best Actress prize from Venice.
Working Title (UK)
Guy Hendrix Dyas