Sir Frederick of Hollywood In the Virgin Queen's Court

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 7, 2007

You've seen the trailers for "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" with Cate Blanchett in full Joan of Arc fetish gear, right? The gleaming, form-flattering armor that Elizabeth I flaunted on the eve of England's famous destruction of the Spanish Armada?

That outfit, like much of Blanchett's alluring, not-quite-cricket costuming for the film (opening Friday), is patently non-historical, a Tudor-tinged fashion fantasia. But it's all part of director Shekhar Kapur's divine plan.

"I more or less like the spirit of the historical look," Kapur says from Los Angeles. "The spirit -- not the actuality of that. Because the actuality can be quite boring."

Heaven forbid, especially when "The Golden Age" -- sequel to Kapur's 1998 "Elizabeth" -- catapults over historic concerns and into a realm that might easily be ruled by superheroes. (The production design is by Guy Hendrix Dyas of "X2" and "Superman Returns.") "The Golden Age" doesn't come completely untethered from reality, but Kapur loosens the bindings considerably as he sketches a portrait of Elizabeth that's a good deal larger than life.

Costume designer Alexandra Byrne, Oscar-nominated for the first "Elizabeth," says the director "wanted this to look completely different, because he felt this was very much about immortality."

"Even in our contemporary world, we all realize we worship people," Kapur suggests. "Diana became divine. Gandhi became divine. Mandela is divine. And then you become godlike. You have to achieve moments of divinity to engage people's sense of destiny."

"The Golden Age" is very much about creating such moments for Elizabeth, with both the storytelling and the design nudging the portrait toward otherworldly realms. Fate is a big concept for Kapur as Elizabeth, a pointedly tolerant Protestant here, gets sucked toward Holy War with the Catholic zealot Philip II of Spain. Come an assassination attempt, for instance, the queen doesn't flee, but stands transfixed.

"It's almost searching for her own destiny," Kapur says. "If this man is here, then is this bullet supposed to get me, or is it not supposed to get me? What am I destined to do?"

If Kapur is willing to talk at length about how Elizabeth dominates her environment in the film (rather than having the soaring stone interiors dominate her, as they did while she struggled for her basic identity in the first picture), part of that domination comes from Byrne's costumes. The cuts are flattering and the palette is contemporary, even if sometimes for idiosyncratic reasons -- i.e. the frequent gowns of pale, watery blue, for Kapur "the color of yearning."

Byrne, speaking from London, laughs almost in despair as she recalls the quest for workable blues. "That threw me completely out of the comfort zone of the first film," she says. "It's not Elizabethan, and it's not a royal color."

But then she came across a theatrical costume design on the period done in the 1940s by Balenciaga.

"I said, that's it!" Byrne recalls. "I call it Couture Meets Elizabeth. . . . I wanted an audience today to salivate over her appearance. She's been on the throne 27 years, she's a confident monarch. She's radiant in court."

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