Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Releases 2 November
1997’s Elizabeth, dealing with the early years of Queen Elizabeth I and her difficult passage to the throne, was a glorious example of the most lavish kind of period drama. Plush sets, a big-name cast, incredible costumes, and a central performance from a then-nearly unknown Cate Blanchett, who was robbed of an Oscar – Best Actress that year instead went to Gwyneth Paltrow for her turn in the so-so Elizabethan romantic comedy Shakespeare in Love, prompting a memorable bout of acceptance speech hysterics.
Ten years on, director Shekhar Kapur has reunited much of his original cast – though sadly without the wonderful Richard Attenborough – in what is only his second film in a decade. This time around, will Blanchett finally be able to secure the Oscar that she should have received for the first film? It’s rather too early to say – all that can be done is to judge the film by the standards of its predecessor, and by the myriad other films and television series that have featured this most iconic of English monarchs in the lead.
Elizabeth I has long been a favourite for historical films and television shows. In the cinema there have been memorable turns by classic stars Sarah Berhnart, in 1912’s Les Amours de la reine Élisabeth, and Bette Davis, in both 1935’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and 1955’s The Virgin Queen, as well as Judi Dench in the aforementioned Shakespeare in Love – the role with the least screentime ever to have won an Oscar. On television there’s been the memorable Glenda Jackson-starring Elizabeth R in the 1970s through Miranda Richardson’s eccentric turn in Blackadder II, to the more recent Anne-Marie Duff-starring The Virgin Queen and Helen Mirren’s Emmy Award-winning outing in the mini-series Elizabeth, both broadcast as recently as 2005.
You would think, in other words, that there’s little new that can be done with the story of Elizabeth after so many screen outings. But in a reign lasting 45 years, and that witnessed some of the most turbulent events in both British and European history with the religious reformation and ensuing continent-wide – even world-wide – power struggles, something new can always be found, as long as the production is sufficiently lavish and the actress in the lead sufficiently talented. Indeed, with the track-record at the award ceremonies for actresses playing this queen and with Blanchett on top form here, putting a few quid on her for the Oscar could well be a sensible bet.
The filmmakers have this time opted for something rather more glamorous and well-known than the supposed romances of Elizabeth’s early life – the onset of state-sponsored piracy in the war against Spain, as personified by Clive Owen’s Walter Raleigh. That Elizabeth was fond of Raleigh is not in doubt – he was one of the heroes of the age, and single-handedly helped thwart Spain’s invasion plans. Yet here the tendency of Hollywood to sex up the storylines sadly detracts a touch from the history, with many a coy and lustful glance exchanged between sailor and queen. Nonetheless, with Blanchett and Owen on good form, and Geoffrey Rush again putting in a scene-stealing performance as the spymaster Francis Walsingham, there is plenty to enjoy both for fans of the period and of the first film.