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November 30, 2007

Elizabeth - more New Age than golden: Elizabeth: The Golden Age - Shekhar Kapur

Posted by Richard D. North

Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Directed by Shekhar Kapur
certificate 12A, 2007

I admire Michael Gove and love his new hairdo. I am sure the education of our children will be safe in his hands. And I am sure he is right that we ought to celebrate unabashed British patriotism whenever it is to be found in the movies, which is seldom enough to be sure. And I suppose he's right that Elizabeth: The Golden Age is at least a paean to nationalism. But is it history? And is it anything at all if it isn't that?

There are various acid tests one might apply. Naturally, I am sure that I know - I properly sense - what English history is all about. I've got J. E. Neale and A. L. Rowse under my belt. I know that Elizabeth was canny, wise, flirtatious, brave and indecisive. And I fully agreed that Edith Sitwell could chuck flickering, candle-glowed romance at her subject in The Queen and the Hive, and still be within the bounds of super-real possibility. So here is someone so big and so extraordinary that she can withstand all manner of nonsense.

But there were long tracts of this movie which were really unbelievably silly. They would have been so even if you forget that they were supposed to bear some relationship to some known facts, or even to some factoids (as the late Norman Mailer described the imaginative near-truths which swirled round Marilyn Monroe).

It didn't much matter that Walter Raleigh wasn't present when the British fleet took pot-shots at the Spanish Armada. But why did he have to be shown as more swashbuckling than Errol Flynn in some creaky saga from half a century ago? Clive Owen did his best as he impersonated one of the most intensely romantic but also intellectual figures in all English history but at the point when he sat on the hearth with Good Queen Bess and said he'd never met a woman like her, the game seemed well and truly up.

It was an encounter which Black Adder and Miranda Richardson's E1 could have managed very well. Cate Blanchett brought all her considerable skills to bear as she got through lines which were pure Amanda and Charles out of Round the Horne.

Walter, in some other time and some other world, could you have loved me? Oh, don't answer. But there is something you could do for me. Something no-one has done for me for a very, very long time. Something which - once done - must be forgotten.
What will this lead to?
Give me a hug?
I couldn't watch and blocked my ears and have no idea what transpired. When next I looked, Cate was got up as Lady Godiva meets Joan of Arc and was prancing about on a vast white charger not - yes, not - delivering the immortal if apocryphal lines about having the stomach of a man. She went on to do a fair imitation of poor Kate Winslet on the prow of the Titanic, only on a cliff top as she watched the Armada burn itself out off the white cliffs of, oh, I don't know , Seaford Head or somewhere.

Oddly, the first Elizabeth movie, for all its weaknesses, was better than this. If you remember (and it was 10 years ago), Episode 1 concerned the childhood and ascent to the throne of our young heroine. The gossipy, whispering world of court - its fissiparous danger - were made very present. It matters that for much of history it has been impossible to be on the safe side of an argument: what was honourably loyal under one dispensation became fatally disloyal under another. It also conveyed the essential truth that great families were at constant and hair-raising undercover war for their own advantage. It was also clear in that first movie that Elizabeth sort of happened by the throne and was not at first at all secure on it. Before we get too loved-up about the first outing, we can recall that it was richly absurd and in much the way of the second.

That's to say: this was wildly anachronistic. What was all that about pistols? Why disappear a century or two when you're trying to evoke a far away time? And that was a very big barge to get down the Cam, but now I am being picky.

The bigger problem is formality. The closest I can get to imagining life at Elizabeth's court, and even in her private rooms, is that it really was very dangerous to overstep the mark. Elizabeth may have been larky on her day, but she was probably the most frightening thing most of her courtiers ever saw in all their frightening lives. Cate did her best to convey some of that, but she was required to be needy in a modern way which undid her chances of being distant in a Medieval one.

She makes quite a good remark about having a virtual glass wall between her and the rest of the world, but even then she sounded like someone passing on tips about the celebrity goldfish bowl than a regal figure with a passing half-belief in the divine right of kings. It is just possible that E1 got into lezzy nestlings with Bess Throckmorton, but I couldn't quite get with the B&Q-cum-Body Shop aesthetic of bath time aromatherapy which we were given. And Raleigh had to be a modern, no-nonsense butch sort of fellow who wasn't going to put up with any whimsicality from his woman though he was of course at the same time very admiring of her in a very New Man sort of way. A tricky number and not badly done, considering.

The key to how badly everything went wrong was the degree to which this was a superstitious, hairdressery, sort of a world. Yes, the Elizabethans were a century or two away from being dismissive of portents. But we have good reason to suppose that Elizabeth and Raleigh were not merely clever. They were consciously and proudly rational. That was the point of the revolution they were heirs to. They had absorbed a Netherlandish reasonableness through the Erasmus tradition. That would have seemed way too elitist, frosty and alienating for the heaving-bosom aspect of this account. There were some good and disarming moments - say when Elizabeth and Raleigh are discussing the business of exploration. And even then we slide into the Posy Post Modern - Elizabeth asks archly:

Are we discovering the New World or is the New World discovering us?
Just before we get too grand, we need to be sure that the Elizabethans would have thought this account as ridiculous as I am inclined to. Shakespeare was a shameless fantasist and propagandist who might have seen some merit in this movie. And the Queen herself loved a showy romp, which this obviously is. And perhaps we should be grateful for an account, any account which gives our youngsters some sense, or smell, of the Tudor world.

And there were aspects of the film which were almost reassuring in following the clichés I trust. The Spaniards were portrayed as faith-ridden miserabilists and the Brits as fun-loving, randy, moderns. Elizabeth was standing up for the liberty of her subjects where possible. (A quick bash at Blair and Brown and Bush there, one supposes.) And we only just pulled off success against the Spanish invader, and much more by luck and courage than by good judgement or anything as boring as preparation. (Oops, there goes the Dunkirk Syndrome again.)

But no, the account is still heavily against this movie. It lived in movie-land, not in the real world let alone in the past. It was a blockbuster and a soap opera and a knitting pattern. It was close to being a brilliant portrayal of the 16th Century, and then risibly succumbed to a dumbed-down set of 21st Century entertainment conventions. It was holed below its Hearts of Oak waterline.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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