Full-Court Dress

Once again on the throne, Cate Blanchett stars in
Once again on the throne, Cate Blanchett stars in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," which never approaches the success of its 1998 prequel. (By Laurie Sparham -- Universal)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 12, 2007

Just in time for Halloween, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" is here to tell us that evoking England's greatest queen is just a matter of finding the right gown, ruffled collar and frizzy wig. That seems to be the only purpose of this much-anticipated follow-up to 1998's "Elizabeth," which thrilled audiences with its spirited embrace of history and the introduction of a fiery newcomer named Cate Blanchett.

Unfortunately, director Shekhar Kapur has doffed that sensual primacy for a bloated costume opera, in which the characters are essentially dress-up dolls, and Elizabeth has evolved from our favorite royal ingenue to a lifeless, chalk-faced runway diva. As she weathers the most significant events of her 45-year reign -- including war with the Spanish Armada and the threat of Mary Queen of Scots -- the movie seems more taken with the dragonfly-winged collars framing her red t¿te and the circus parade of zebras, snakes and New World Indians before her gaze. Even Elizabeth's relationship with Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), the movie's golden opportunity to reveal her innermost impulses, amounts to a sartorial face-off ( this Raleigh is the puffy-pants prince of her domain) and exchanges of pseudo-meaningful dialogue.

Clearly, the filmmakers, including screenwriters William Nicholson and Michael Hirst (the latter penned the first film), assume we commoners will forget our need for emotional involvement amid the folds, pleats and billows of period pageantry. And as if to compensate for this emptiness, Kapur floods every possible moment with orchestral music. This mood marshaling has the unintentional effect of suggesting England contracted with Bose to outfit every corner of the realm with giant music speakers while 16th-century undead roam the Earth.

This couture-centric storytelling echoes last year's "Marie Antoinette," in which director Sofia Coppola reduced the French Revolution to a backdrop for the wig-and-powder follies of a youthful Marie and Louis XVI. But Coppola's effort still presented the French royal couple as disconcertingly real. Kapur allows spectacle to dwarf and choke his characters, who move like Tudor-style Barbies from palace to sea battle to beheadings. We feel nothing for these well-dressed screen beings, or the movie's climactic, too-obviously-computer-generated naval skirmishes. When Mary Queen of Scots (the luminous Samantha Morton) faces that inevitable chopping block, for example, we should have our hearts in our mouths. Yet we are strangely unmoved.

Most unaffecting of all is the story's central affair between Elizabeth and Sir Walter. Where the real Elizabeth sought out Raleigh as something of a boy-toy sage, the movie paints a sillier postmodern version. Blanchett's Elizabeth sees Raleigh as a medieval Dr. Phil, a man of external strength and tenderly dispensed homilies and observations. When Raleigh asks Elizabeth to consider a world in which she's liked for herself, not because she's queen, we're only missing a reaction shot from Oprah Winfrey, nodding enthusiastically from milady's chamber.

Although Blanchett plays Elizabeth energetically, it's without subtext. What she says -- or shouts in her Big Queen Voice -- is exactly what she means. It's as though Blanchett opted for the acting style of the period, when performers projected their emotions to large, unsophisticated crowds. By contrast, Helen Mirren's portrayal of the monarch in the 2006 British miniseries "Elizabeth I" offered a more complex performance. Mirren, of course, also looked the part of an aging queen, dependent on young courtiers for poetic, often insincere flattery. In "The Golden Age," Owen's Raleigh, whose historical counterpart was in his late 20s when he met Elizabeth, looks at least 10 years older. And Blanchett seems a healthy 35, hardly the almost-50 spinster she's meant to be.

"More lines in my face," she laments, gazing depressed into a mirror. It's enough to prompt the obsequious courtier in all of us to say, "Where, Queen Bess, where? In thy smile?"

We might also ask: "Where is thy heart?" When our Faerie Queene shares a kiss with Raleigh in what should be the movie's pitter-pattery climax, she does it with all the passion of a Madame Tussaud creation. The scene's only source of excitement becomes whether she'll melt in the heat of the crackling fire. (We wouldn't want to ruin that dress.) Should "The Golden Age" fail miserably at the box office, perhaps Kapur and company could make a tax-free donation to film and stage director Julie Taymor; surely she has an Elizabethan movie or musical waiting to be birthed.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (114 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence, some sexuality and nudity.

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