THE FO­RUM

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - PETER CRAVEN on good queen bland

THERE’S no deny­ing Cate Blanchett’s new film El­iz­a­beth: The Golden Age is a hand­some ve­hi­cle for her for­mi­da­ble tal­ents and that it gives us a sump­tu­ous vi­sion of the Eng­land of El­iz­a­beth I.

From Bette Davis to Glenda Jack­son and He­len Mir­ren, this has al­ways been a mag­nif­i­cent role for ac­tors and Blanchett has plenty of histri­onic op­por­tu­nity to ex­tend her im­age of El­iz­a­beth, the role she first played for Shekhar Ka­pur in 1998. She cap­tures the mood­i­ness and mag­nif­i­cence well enough for what is es­sen­tially an eye- pleas­ing bit of cel­lu­loid. But it’s a pity in a film that looks great and also has a wealth of tal­ent — Ge­of­frey Rush as Francis Wals­ing­ham and Clive Owen as Wal­ter Raleigh — that so much his­tory of a gen­uinely dra­matic kind is sim­ply thrown away.

Ka­pur puts his em­pha­sis on Raleigh and his ro­mance with El­iz­a­beth Throck­mor­ton ( played very sat­is­fy­ingly by Ab­bie Cor­nish). We get the melo­drama of the queen’s dis­plea­sure at this and then the der­ring- do of Raleigh’s role in the naval de­feat of the Span­ish Ar­mada. ( In fact, he was only in­volved in the land op­er­a­tion.)

But the real prob­lem with Blanchett’s new El­iz­a­beth is that the film shows no depth of in­ter­est in the blood, be­trayal and knife- edge pol­i­tics that make the Tu­dor pe­riod such a fas­ci­nat­ing, ghastly and in­tensely dra­matic era to rep­re­sent.

The Spa­niards are pre­sented with a shrouded and sin­is­ter gor­geous­ness, like fig­ures from Ve­lasquez, but the im­pli­ca­tion is that the Catholi­cism of Philip II rep­re­sented the forces of dark­ness. Sa­man­tha Mor­ton is good as Mary, Queen of Scots, and there is an at­tempt to rep­re­sent the Catholics who con­spired against El­iz­a­beth I, but there’s lit­tle in­di­ca­tion of the com­plex­ity of the so- called set­tle­ment the queen was at­tempt­ing to ef­fect.

It’s a pity, be­cause a live­lier sense of his­tory may have given Blanchett’s role the sense of tragedy and grandeur that makes Glenda Jack­son’s per­for­mance in the BBC se­ries El­iz­a­beth R the yard­stick for any­one who wants to queen it as Glo­ri­ana or Bess.

One of the re­mark­able things about that television se­ries from 1971 ( newly re­fur­bished in a set of three DVDs, each three hours long) is just how much it tal­lies not only with the power and glory but also the blood and treach­ery and des­o­lat­ing doubt of the his­tor­i­cal record.

If you look no fur­ther than the chap­ter on El­iz­a­beth I in Si­mon Schama’s A His­tory of Bri­tain ( a doc­u­men­tary, there­fore a slightly dif­fer­ent kind of TV hit), it’s sur­pris­ing how much the vi­vac­ity as well the com­plex­ity of El­iz­a­beth R is there in the his­tor­i­cal record.

Jack­son was won­der­ful at con­vey­ing how El­iz­a­beth was haunted all her days by the fact that, as a girl, she had seen the great queen Catherine Howard un­der sen­tence of death, de­nied ac­cess so that she was un­able to plead for her life with her hus­band, Henry VIII. And for El­iz­a­beth R’s scriptwrit­ers this was the key to the Vir­gin Queen, that she would take ev­ery wind­ing stair her wit could find to avoid be­ing de­pen­dent on the whim or will of any man.

It was a com­plex para­ble for a new time that was just dis­cov­er­ing fem­i­nism and Jack­son took to the role of the queen who made it in a bru­tal man’s world — the stake and the ax­e­man’s world of Ref­or­ma­tion Europe — like a des­tiny. The script is ex­tremely sen­si­tive to the his­tor­i­cal record and its high lit­er­acy and its abil­ity to cap­ture the for­mal­ity as well as the grisly earth­i­ness of a Re­nais­sance world view has an affin­ity with the kind of his­tor­i­cal id­iom Robert Bolt had used in his Thomas More play, A Man for All Sea­sons , just a few years ear­lier.

The dif­fer­ence was that the con­tem­po­rary ap­pre­hen­sion of El­iz­a­beth’s ruth­less­ness ( as well as the fre­quent poignancy of her predica­ment) gave an edge to the rep­re­sen­ta­tion, which al­lowed for more than ide­al­ism. El­iz­a­beth R was a TV se­rial and it was in some ways a kind of English Ref­or­ma­tion an­tic­i­pa­tion of the spell­bind­ing and sin­is­ter de­lights that would make I, Claudius such a won­der a few years later.

The trou­ble with El­iz­a­beth: The Golden Age is that Ka­pur and his scriptwrit­ers William Ni­chol­son and Michael Hirst are not will­ing to give their au­di­ence the kind of adult and many- faceted text that El­iz­a­beth R had, and which stares at us from the pages of his­tory. El­iz­a­beth did ac­tu­ally say that if she was set down in her pet­ti­coat in any realm in Chris­ten­dom, she would have the cun­ning to thrive. It was mar­vel­lous in the mouth of Jack­son, but it also has the dra­matic ring of truth.

I wanted more of this, much more, in El­iz­a­beth: The Golden Age .

Af­ter all, El­iz­a­beth R man­aged to present Philip II of Spain first as a man with an erotic ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the young El­iz­a­beth and then, in his de­vout old age, as a man of re­li­gious de­vo­tion who was also ca­pa­ble of in­tense irony and mild­ness. Early on it had shown him — and it was straight from his­tory — ad­vis­ing Mary Tu­dor ( to whom he was mar­ried) to go easy on the burn­ings.

One of the dif­fi­cul­ties with El­iz­a­beth: The Golden Age is that it re­duces this most tur­bu­lent and elo­quent pe­riod of his­tory into a cel­lu­loid sto­ry­book that seems de­signed for a child of nine. It’s un­fair to El­iz­a­beth and it’s un­fair to Blanchett. If you give El­iz­a­beth her due, you can give an ac­tor such as Jack­son a part that runs the gamut of wit and mag­na­nim­ity and rage and grief and guilt. If you want the comic strip — with the Ar­mada to the left of you and El­iz­a­beth as a god­dess fig­ure to the right call­ing down the winds of the world — well, you’ll just be giv­ing the dra­matic royal you cast in the role a chance to make a meal of it.

That’s what hap­pens to Blanchett, su­perb ac­tor that she is. We can only hope that on stage she does Friedrich von Schiller’s Mary Stu­art or Shake­speare’s Cleopa­tra so that we get a true sense of her do­min­ion as an ac­tor.

That would be some sort of homage to the El­iz­a­beth who was queen of what was in its dark way some sort of golden age.

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