Tuesday, October 2, 2007

2 Minute Film Review: Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Shekhar Kapur)

Those looking for depth, as always, are advised to search elsewhere.

Important caveat: I haven’t seen the original Elizabeth since it played theaters back in the fall of ’98 and I wasn’t a fan. In general I found it overblown, over-directed and under conceived. The shorthand at the time was “The Godfather for women” which, while both an unfair knock against both that film and that gender, also gets at the fundamentally cartoonish nature of the entire franchise. Filmed amidst impenetrable dark shadows where an assassin can spring forth at any time and a duplicitous climate of intrigue where even your closest advisers conspire against you, Kapur’s hyper-indifferent storytelling actually allowed the birth of England’s most prominent monarchy to become overshadowed by the moon-eyed pining of an adolescent who couldn’t love whom she wanted. In that same vein I found Cate Blanchett’s much championed performance to consist of two notes: simpering and Elmer Gantry. Seven Oscar nominations and the outright devotion of almost every woman I’ve ever met tell me I’m squarely in the minority with these opinions.

So now we have Elizabeth: The Golden Age which not only matches the first film fault for fault but seems to be rehashing the same conflicts (internal as well as external) thirty years farther along in QEI’s life. And yet I’d be a complete liar if I didn’t confess that in its own trashy sort of way the film is actually quite fun at times. I think the secret is—and perhaps I was too young to grasp this the first time out—that you have to toss out everything you’ve ever read in a history book as well as any pre-conceived notion of what a period piece should be and just appreciate the film as a live-action comic book. The realities of, as an example, a 50-something Elizabeth donning a full suit of honor and delivering a ra-ra, Braveheart-esque speech to rally the troops (which strikes me as absurd as the idea of honest Abe fighting at the front lines of the Civil War) are secondary to the grandeur of the imagery and the swell in your chest one is no doubt supposed to feel. Likewise, the threat from all-sides approach to conflict has the effect of turning even the most effete of diplomats into snarling threats to kingdom and crown. It's all quite lurid and baroque and laughable, but never dull.

Also on the plus side of the ledger is Kapur’s toned-down visual scheme which employs less drastic contrasts between light and dark as well as less spastic camera movement (although his predilection for extreme camera angels and 360-spins are still disappointingly the norm) which certainly allows for a great appreciation for the film’s production design and the great weathered faces of its cast. And of course, you have the intended upside of Kapur’s post-modern techniques which is the film cooks, never allowing itself to get bogged down in musty expository pieces or staid chamber-room drama (quite the opposite, the film is so propulsive at times it’s difficult to tell that we’ve actually moved from a different country and even a different year than we were just in a few seconds earlier).

So, clearly this one played well above expectations, but I can’t overstate that this might be the most redundant film in history. Blanchett gives the exact same performance here that she did nine years ago, which will no doubt please those who found the first film a “you-go-girrrrrl” empowerment piece in corsets, but doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense when viewing the character’s dramatic arc over the course of a lifetime. Frankly it’s a bit disheartening to watch a middle-aged woman sulk that in spite of being the most powerful woman in the world still can’t get the guy. Speaking of which, Clive Owen has been slotted into the Joseph Fiennes role, which I’ve got to believe is an improvement across the board (right ladies?), but some last act Errol Flynn heroics aside isn’t given much to do beyond serve as eye candy. But that pretty much sums up the film as a whole. B-

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