Wednesday, October 17, 2007

REVIEW: Elizabeth: The Golden Age

It's a period piece with a level of visual oppulence that occasionally dangles at the precipice of outright fantasy, re-imagines a politically/morally complex moment in Western Civ 101 into a starkly-drawn clash between righteous - if grimly pragmatic - Anglo Good Guys and just-this-side-of-demonic Swarthy-Foriegner Bad Guys and charges forward on a feiry lead performance given by a Cranked-Up-To-Eleven British thespian as a legendary monarch with a flair for declarative sentences and the verbal bruising of their enemy's messengers. In other words, it's a little bit like a "chick version" of "300."

Ten years ago, director Shekar Kapur's "Elizabeth" made Cate Blanchett into an instant star thanks to her grand titular turn and itself into an Anglophile cult-classic thanks to it's sharp script, stellar cast, decidely UN-"Masterpiece Theater" visual scheme and deft mixing of costume-drama, sensuality and political skullduggery. Director and star are here reunited, looking for lightning to strike twice by sending the title character into Act II.

Since it can no longer be expected that this stuff comes up in school anymore: In the previous film, Elizabeth, daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boylen, became Queen of England amid the swirling religious turmoil involving the bitter struggle between the Europe-dominating Catholic Church and the Protestant Church of England - formed by her father after the Catholics refused to allow him to divorce his first wife. Aided by her loyal advisor/spymaster Walshingham (the great Geoffrey Rush) she positioned herself for power against the machinations of the Catholics, who would see her replaced by her devout (and just-this-side-of-nuts) half-sister Mary Stuart.

As the sequel opens, Elizabeth's reign has set England as the lone "rebel" nation opposite the obsessively-religious King Philip of Spain, who's Inquisition-happy administration is acting as the tip of a spear in a Catholic-themed Holy War against Protestantism in Europe. Not only is a mighty Spanish Armada being primed for a naval incursion, but England itself is crawling with assassins itching to martyr themselves to bring down the "unholy" Queen. Into this steps Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen,) a professional adventurer who's hobby - piracy - makes him an invaluable ally in the unconventional war Elizabeth will ultimately have to wage. More importantly, he's a bit of a charmer (Clive Owen, y'see,) since the overriding arc of this franchise is the dueling duties/desires of the Queen's public and personal life: Elizabeth is tantilized not just by Raleigh himself, but by the free-spirited life he enjoys, and her ability to set her desire for the "alternatives" this presents in order to properly wage a multi-front defensive war with Spain - and the collateral damage that will be done either way - is the meat of the story.

The original film climaxed with Elizabeth, facing down what was already sure to be a constantly-imperiled reign, transforming her (public) self into that of the Virgin Queen, an ethereal Madonna Figure exuding superhuman power and authority - a potent transformation given how entirely human and vulnerable we knew her to be from the rest of the film. Here, it's somewhat the opposite: The forceful and furious Virgin Queen is front and center most of the time, and it's whatever remains of the "human" Elizabeth we only glimpse. As if proof was needed that Blanchett is an actress of boundless ability, here it is: Who else could spend almost an entire film in varying stages of white greasepaint and staggeringly-opulent costumes barking orders and challenges at cowering minions/enemies (attention dudes who 'get off' on being verbally berrated by beautiful women: this is your new favorite porno) and NOT have it come off as high camp?

The rest of the movie is kind of the same way: It's big, soaring and damn-near-garish, but somehow it just WORKS. As history, it's a bit on the dubious side what with a likely too-clever-to-be-true conspiracy switcheroo twist and a simplifying of the conflict that seems to owe more to an attempt at contemporary paralell (i.e. a Western leader facing down a foriegn army of chanting, cultish religious fanatics) than to the accounts of the times. As romance, it's pretty soapy, with Elizabeth pining for Raleigh only to see him take up with her Lady in Waiting Bess - a confidant with whom she spends so much time doting on one another (don't get excited: they didn't pull that trigger last time, they ain't gonna pull it here) that it eventually feels less like a love triangle and a bit more like the Queen is carrying on with both of them, by proxy, one through the other. And it builds to a dramatic naval battle that Julie Taymor would call overly-operatic. And check out Samantha Morton's super-crazy turn as Mary Stuart (which has added the benefit of guest-starring Morton's mezmerizingly-beautiful face and simply-incredible.. um... "upper torso")...

...But it all (mostly) fits together and runs along fine, a feverish delusion of Anglophile design-porn. Credit Kapur's bold embrace of the material's eccentricities, and a group of well-served actors (with the minor exception of Owen, who's doing his best in an underwritten role that feels like the writer's put that part on auto-pilot once they were told they'd landed Clive Owen to play a swashbuckler.) This is a beautiful to look at, enormously fun to watch hybrid - an illicit lovechild of Summer Blockbusters and BBC Costume Drama - anchored by one of the year's fiercest and most volatile performances. Reccomended.

FINAL RATING: 8/10