Off With Its Head
Steven D. Greydanus review Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
A lurid vision of history pervades Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Shekhar Kapur’s sequel to his 1998 art-house hit Elizabeth. It’s a take that would do Christopher “Mother Teresa Is a Fraud” Hitchens proud.
The earlier film, which made a star of Cate Blanchett as the eponymous Virgin Queen, celebrated the triumph of bright, happy Elizabethan Protestantism over the dark, unwholesome Catholic world of Bloody Mary. It turns out that film’s Catholic-bashing was just a warm-up. In the sequel everything bad, evil and corrupt in the world is the bitter fruit of religion. And by religion, I mean the Catholic faith.
The Golden Age carefully expunges anything like actual belief or religiosity from the minimalist piety of its heroine. Elizabeth might kneel in a brightly lit church in decorously silent, solitary prayer, but it’s Catholics who pray out loud, usually in spooky Latin. They read from prayer books and clutch rosary beads. They surround themselves with ominous, robed clerics bestowing Church sanction on all manner of sinister goings-on. Worst of all, they have religious ideas and motivations.
If someone says something like “God has spoken to me,” it’s a sure bet that the speaker is a Catholic whose message spells trouble for non-Catholics. Ditto any reference to “true believers,” “God’s work,” and the like.
In this world, God-talk is troubling Catholic behavior. Meanwhile Protestants don’t talk to, or about, God. Their religion is little more than a slogan for conscience, religious freedom and, of course, heroic resistance to Catholic oppression.
“I will not punish my people for their beliefs — only for their deeds,” says Elizabeth, conveniently forgetting that, in the last movie, she rammed the Act of Uniformity through Parliament, outlawing the Catholic Mass and imposing compulsory attendance at Anglican services.
In this version of history, the hosts of Catholics martyred under Elizabeth are all traitors and conspirators. “Every Catholic in England is a potential assassin,” Elizabeth’s advisers helpfully remind her in an early scene. Well, then, every Catholic in England is a potential political prisoner, too.
Historically, the film is very loosely tethered to events from the 1580s, notably the execution of Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton) and the defeat of the Spanish Armada of Philip II of Spain (Jordi Mollà).
Opening titles inform us that Philip — a “devout Catholic,” in case you were wondering — has “plunged Europe into holy war,” and “only England stands against him.” Whom this holy war is being waged against, if “only England stands against him,” is not specified.
Presumably the reference is to resistance to Turkish encroachment in the Mediterranean, but far be it from The Golden Age to muddy the waters of Catholic warmongering by mentioning Muslim expansion.
In attacking England, Philip is convinced that he’s on a mission from God. “England is enslaved to the devil,” he declares. “We must set her free.” Certain that God is on his side as he leads his nation into a holy war that becomes a debacle, Philip couldn’t be a darker, nuttier Hollywood villain if his middle initial were W.
Other flirtations with topicality in this pre-election year include assassins and conspirators praying secretly in a foreign language while plotting their murderous attacks, and the Machiavellian Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) torturing a captured conspirator during an interrogation.
The film does go on to concede that the Spanish have other grievances against the English besides religion, such as the queen’s tolerant stance on English pirates like Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) raiding Spanish ships. But it’s all a big circle: The raids are rationalized on the grounds that Philip is Elizabeth’s enemy, and the more gold English privateers seize from Spanish vessels, the fewer resources Philip has to wage war on England.
That the raids give Philip more justification for going to war hardly matters, since we already know that he’s on a mission from God.
The film’s romantic intrigues are even duller than its religio-political ones, though here at least the actors are occasionally able to rise above their material. Not always; in some scenes even Blanchett seems lost amid the puerility of her character’s romantic woes.
The original Elizabeth imagined the young queen carrying on a flagrant affair with Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes), but ended with its protagonist reinventing herself as an iconic “Virgin Queen.” Now we find Elizabeth sustaining her celibate image and giving her singleness a feminist gloss.
In a closing monologue, she says: “Unmarried, I have no master; childless, I am mother to my people. God give me strength to bear this mighty freedom.” The freedom of the single career woman!
As in the earlier film, the queen holds herself aloof from the constant pressure to marry and produce an heir, though there is no shortage of unsuitable suitors. There are more sparks with Raleigh, though he is more drawn to dewy young Bess (Abbie Cornish), a favored lady-in-waiting on whom the queen in turn dotes tenderly enough to suggest that the triangle goes all the way around. (There were also hints of something between Elizabeth and a lady-in-waiting in the original film.)
Elizabeth’s wonder at Raleigh’s rhapsodic account of his arrival in the New World is about as close to a positive religious experience as The Golden Age can muster. The ocean, Elizabeth muses, is a very “image of eternity.” She wonders, “Do we discover the new world, or does the new world discover us?”
When it comes to literal religiosity, though, The Golden Age’s sensibilities are wholly unsympathetic. The climax, a weakly staged destruction of the Spanish Armada, is a crescendo of Church-bashing imagery: rosaries floating amid burning flotsam, inverted crucifixes sinking to the bottom of the ocean, rows of grim clerics slinking away in defeat.
How is it possible that this orgy of anti-Catholicism has been all but ignored by most critics? The reviews have not been good, but critics are sticking to safe, noncommittal charges of general lameness.
The blind eye speaks volumes about the state of movie criticism. For if the object of the film’s vitriol were any group outside Christendom — say, if praying in Arabic were the sure sign of dangerous fanaticism, and if a Muslim prince were making holy war on Christendom with the blessings of all the eminent imams — would there be any shortage of critical objections to such stereotyping?
As a lover of film criticism as well as film, I find the reviews more depressing than the film.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.
Content Advisory: A sexual encounter (non-explicit); brief rear female nudity; some crude language; a couple of gory torture/mutilation scenes and non-explicit execution/killings.
- October 21-27, 2007