The film veers between a saga of love and lust and a story of religious warfare, neither of them fulfilling, although let it be said that watching Clive Owen stride about in britches and tights is a lot more fun than watching papists being tortured.
Owen plays Sir Walter Raleigh, who introduces himself to the queen by tossing his cloak on a puddle so she doesn't get her dainty feet wet. This is one of those historical tidbits that no self-respecting splashy blockbuster is going to pass up, no matter how disputed it might be. Elizabeth is amused. "Puddle," she says to herself as she walks on, her Mona Lisa smile suggesting she wouldn't mind playing a game of Strip the Sailor with Sir Walter.
We can't blame her for being easily turned on. Being the Virgin Queen is a truly dreary prospect, and if Kapur's movie is to be believed, poor Elizabeth is reminded of her celibacy every time she turns around. Sir Walter announces he's named a new colony Virginia in her honor. "When I marry, will you change the name to Conjugia?" she retorts. Blanchett gives every one of her lines in these early scenes a
Only a man as good-looking and intensely masculine as Owen could get away with some of the lines Sir Walter hands Elizabeth. "Very nourishing," he purrs as he passes her a potato from the New World. "Very stimulating," he sighs as he offers up tobacco from good old Virginia. Oh, the extraordinary hotness of produce!
But again, they did call her the Virgin Queen for a reason. Much as the movie seems to long to rip open Elizabeth's bodice and let her frolic with a swashbuckling explorer, it is stumped by its desire to be historically accurate. Enter Elizabeth's favorite lady-in-waiting, Bess Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish), who serves as her proxy for flirtation, dancing and other matters involving the opposite sex.
Since Bess is the main recipient of Elizabeth's displays of physical affection, you could argue that unlacing her corset is the closest thing to unlacing the queen's. That's Sir Walter's approach, anyway. Or is it? The movie is unfortunately vague on Bess' and his motivations and romantic inclinations, which leaves us feeling that the whole menage is a muddle.
"The Golden Age's" failings on romantic clarity are nothing compared to its confusing political machinations. Naturally, we get that the Catholics are still railing against Protestant rule, but it doesn't get much deeper than that.
Players are introduced to us, given a few words to hiss, and then yanked off screen until the next time they're required to stare down their noses at someone. Phillip II of Spain (Jordi Molla) minces around, spitting out, "Inglaterra," as if it were a mouthful of bad milk instead of a country. Also from the anti-Elizabeth faction, we have Robert Reston (Rhys Ifans), who dabbles in torture and hangs around in a dark and dank room filled with vats of red water. Kapur never explains where he is (Spain? England? Scotland?), and it takes ages to sort out that he's not making Protestant soup but, rather, dying red robes for the papists.
The excellent Geoffrey Rush reprises his role as Elizabeth's closest adviser, Sir Francis Walsingham, but they don't have a chance to build on the rapport they had in "Virgin." Samantha Morton makes an intriguingly powerful Mary, Queen of Scots -- she's no second fiddle to her cousin -- but all of her scenes are played in her castle prison, so her story seems to happen in a vacuum. We get only the highlights.
That's really the movie's overarching problem. It dances through history, making us feel as though such spectacles as the defeat of the Spanish Armada took place in the course of an afternoon, and that what really mattered was what everyone was wearing at the time. Letting us hear Blanchett deliver Elizabeth's rallying speech to her troops in its entirety would have been a better use of screen time than all of Kapur's gauzy shots of her in 16th-century couture.
Reach Mary F. Pols at 925-945-4741 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
"ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE"
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Clive Owen, Geoffrey Rush, Abbie Cornish, Samantha Morton, Tom Hollander, Rhys Ifans, Jordi Molla
Director: Shekhar Kapur
Rated: PG-13 for violence, some sexuality and nudity
Opens today: Bay Area theaters
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes