Elizabeth: the Golden Age (12A)
Faerie Queene falls to earth
Friday 02 November 2007
Talk about transcending your limitations. Queen Elizabeth I was born illegitimate, Protestant and ginger-haired, yet she behaved like she was God's gift – literally. At one dramatic juncture in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, an assassin bursts in to the church where the Queen is at prayer, but as he aims his pistol, the light emanating from her seems of such divine intensity that the man is too dazzled to plug her. Like those statuettes of the Virgin Mary you can buy at Lourdes, this lady glows in the dark.
By her own admission, Cate Blanchett was initially reluctant to reprise her breakthrough role from nine years ago, yet there seems nothing remotely half-hearted about her performance. Her skin is perhaps a little too luminously perfect for a woman of 52 – the age of Elizabeth in 1585 when this film begins – and her beauty would have to be another miracle from God, considering her father was Henry VIII. But what's good about Blanchett's performance is her ability to suggest the psychological tug-of-war between regal duty and human need – one moment playing the powdered gorgon, the next mere flesh-and-blood. This Elizabeth, conscious of her virginity and confused with longing, doesn't seem to know if she's a sensual woman or not.
At first, her playfulness with Bess (Abbie Cornish), her favourite lady-in-waiting, carries a whiff of the Sapphic; then, she uses her as a kind of amorous bait in getting close to Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), just back from the New World bearing potatoes, tobacco and a certain smouldering sexuality. She enjoys the pertness of this courtier, who appears to understand her fear of not being loved for herself; he enjoys the attentiveness of an all-powerful woman, though her perverse scheming flirts with danger. Owen has somehow overcome the disadvantage of that monotonous voice and turned himself into a plausible charmer – he even gets to do the legendary cloak-across-the-puddle trick I first read about in my Ladybird history of the Tudors.
At this level, the film plays out an enjoyable pas de deux, or rather folie à trois, as the Queen toys with her subjects' affections before realising that she has sabotaged her own. It's on the larger scale that it begins to look sketchy, switching the spotlight from Catholic plotters to the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) to the drumbeats of war sounding from the court of Philip II of Spain, or as the press notes have it, "the destructive wind of fundamentalist Catholicism". Do you suppose that a contemporary resonance is being flagged?
The director, Shekhar Kapur, sets his camera at a stealthy, prowling pace, and shoots persistently through screens and veils, or from behind pillars: it's like being in a theatre where every seat is restricted-view. The technique certainly conjures the right atmosphere of intrigue, though the pay-offs turn out to be rather underwhelming.
The film also misjudges its belated leap towards the epic; first, in a wildly self-indulgent execution scene, and then as the Queen prepares her army to repel the Spanish Armada. Throughout, the Spaniards have been portrayed as little more than swarthy, spiteful popinjays (Philip calls Elizabeth "a godless, childless bastard"), while almost nothing of their military capability is suggested. Elizabeth's Agincourt-style speech to her men, delivered with a strained haughtiness reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher, seems to have little bearing on anything, given that all the action is happening at sea.
Blanchett does her considerable best, but in place of those scenes where the monarch tends to a dying lieutenant on the battlefield, she must make do with a low-key farewell to her trusty enforcer Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush). The pathos of the story – what Elizabeth has sacrificed in cleaving to her royal duty – is rather muffled by this shift from private sphere to public. But see it anyway for Blanchett's soulful modulation between queenly command and womanly anguish.
A lively antagonism between a man and a woman is also at the centre of Interview, albeit without the doublet and hose. A remake of a 2003 film by Dutch film-maker Theo Van Gogh (who was murdered the following year by a fundamentalist nutter), it concerns a failing political reporter (Steve Buscemi) sent to interview a B-movie actress (Sienna Miller) who is better known for her celebrity than for her work. The initial hostility of their exchanges and a certain malicious wit establish a rhythm and pique the interest. Having told her that he'd never seen any of her movies, the journalist later admits he did catch one during an in-flight programme: "I wanted the plane to go down."
An hour in, and it begins to lose its zing. Buscemi, loveably crumpled and seedy, is always good value, and Miller is very persuasive as the spoilt monster of caprice and egomania: she can act, even if the part is hardly a stretch for her. The fault is in the writing. Buscemi, who also directs, can't do much with a two-hander that's obviously better suited to the stage. Even with a droll bit of slapstick to pep up proceedings, the situation feels increasingly implausible, both as professional enquiry and personal encounter.
It pretends to be about the games of deceit that go on between men and women, but it's really just a squib on the culture of celebrity, and the cynical conclusion that's meant to pull us up short is feeble and silly beyond patience. The most cursory understanding of how the celebrity interview works will tell you that this pair would not have given each other the time of day, let alone a glimpse into their soul, and the best acting in the world won't convince you otherwise.
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