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.