In anticipation of the sequel, Marcy and I rewatched the original 1998 movie, a solid historical drama with a healthy Godfather finish and an astounding performance by Cate Blanchett. The new film, also directed by Shekhar Kapur, picks up the story where it left off and sees the Virgin Queen through to the defeat of the Armada in 1588. As spymaster Walsingham, Geoffrey Rush is once again trying to outplot the Spanish. Abbie Cornish plays the maid with the bursting bodice who has the “ear of the Queen” and makes love in front of sundry fireplaces. Samantha Morton gets to stick her neck out as Mary, Queen of Scots. And Elizabeth once again suffers for her country, unable to pick a husband or escape — like Helen Mirren’s QEII — from the constraints of her office.
Yes, there’s a good deal of soap opera in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, but by the time the fire ships appear, this movie has become something quite different. The beacons of England are lit (cf. Return of the King), a CGI fleet is tossed about in a storm (cf. 300), the Queen harangues the troops on a coiffed horse, and Clive Owen, as the raffish pirate Sir Walter Raleigh, does some honest-to-god swashbuckling. Forget the soap: we have reached the emotional pitch of opera.
Kapur’s sweeping spectacle forgoes all musty pretensions of middle-brow edutainment, and if you expected a history lesson you’ll emerge from the theater deaf and dumb. Elizabeth: The Golden Age is the work of a director who is intoxicated with the power of cinema, and as an aficionado of Revenge of the Sith, I felt right at home in his world. Visually, it’s as overstuffed as any of the Star Wars prequels, bombarding us with new colors, angles, sweeping vistas, and scenery-chewing performances. The soundtrack is every bit as overwhelming as John William’s famous fanfare, and Padme Amidala would have killed for this Queen’s hairdos and extravagant costumes. Elizabeth: The Golden Age opens on October 12.