A frustrated trip through The Golden Age

by Glen Baity

There’s an old saw in the world of drama stating – wisely – that if a gun is hanging on the wall in the first act, it had better be fired by the third.

As I understand it, that means by the beginning of the third act, or at least near its middle. This is evidently not a widespread understanding.

Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age opens with a reference to the Spanish Armada, the hammer King Phillip of Spain plans to wield to spread the Catholic faith across Europe. The rumblings of the coming epic clash are felt throughout the film, but the gun, as it were, hangs idle until very near the end. When it finally goes off with a modest pop, it’s almost an afterthought.

If the film has a core conflict, it’s this looming war with Spain, but as The Golden Age moves forward, the viewer can be forgiven some distraction. The intervening 90 minutes set the film’s focus largely on Elizabeth’s frustrating love life, highlighted in a breathy, historically dubious affair with Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen). I’m told by my trusted source that the two were good friends, but that the general consensus is that little evidence exists for a torrid love affair of the kind portrayed in The Golden Age.

Nevertheless, the film preoccupies itself with the relationship to a startling degree. Woven into it are a range of subplots, most of them tangential, involving Elizabeth’s decades-long power struggle against her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as the questionable loyalties of her trusted handmaiden Bess (Abbie Cornish). Kapur does a poor job of justifying the inclusion of many of these threads, leaving the casual viewer too often scratching his head, wondering how it all hangs together.

I had read a few months back that The Golden Age was to be the second in a planned trilogy of films about Elizabeth I, which, having now seen it, seems strange. Indeed, one of the major problems with the film is that it has too many irons in too many fires, and embroils itself in so many storylines it is rendered impenetrable by the end. It’s as if Kapur was worried he wouldn’t have the opportunity to tell these stories in another film, which, sadly, is exactly where they belong.

Especially when stacked up against its predecessor, which was gradually paced without being boring, and visually stunning throughout, The Golden Age feels muddled and dull despite the best efforts of Cate Blanchett, who steps back into the role of the queen with the anticipated power and depth. If anything could save this film, it would be her performance, a stirring portrait of the trials and glories inherent in Elizabeth’s royal life. But even Blanchett often seems to be flailing about in this maelstrom of plot.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m no purist when it comes to historical drama. Sometimes conflict has to be exaggerated, or simplified, to make a cohesive story that is accessible to people who haven’t studied the subject matter in depth. But Elizabeth: The Golden Age seems to have oversimplified too many of its elements in service of cramming as much as possible into a two-hour film. Had it slowed down and focused on one or two of these stories, the film would have been a powerhouse. Instead, it’s an often frustrating and confounding, if quite pretty, piece of historical fiction.

The final sea battle encapsulates much of the film’s problems: It’s a long time coming and is unsatisfying as a piece of spectacle. The armada, when it finally appears onscreen, looks intimidating enough, but the ensuing fracas is far less thrilling than the climax of the third Pirates of the Caribbean. The film implies that the Armada’s defeat sent King Phillip skulking into obscurity, which is characteristic of the ways in which The Golden Age confronts historical complexity. So there it is: Whether you’re a history buff eager to see legends come alive, or a moviegoer hoping to immerse yourself in a bygone era of giant personalities and world-changing conflict, this film will find its own unique way to disappoint you.

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