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Rarely has a costume drama been more fever-pitched than Elizabeth. The tone is ceaselessly conspiratorial, murky, sexual, murderous; there are burnings at the stake, stabs, chopped-off heads, throat-slashings, arrows of assassination, stonings, self-flagellation and a poisoned dress to suggest, as many have, a 16th century Godfather. Helping it along is Cate Blanchett who can’t seem to do much wrong in the acting department, even if her young Bess doesn’t mesh with historic details. (For those, Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth R is recommended.) Some moviegoers believe director Shekhar Kapur, in doing his first movie in English, has been able to get away with what he’s done because he brings a non-Western perspective to the nasty shenanigans; he seems unencumbered and such a speed-racer he didn’t care or have much time to check the facts. Elizabeth may have had her little dalliances, especially with Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour and Lord Robert Dudley, and flirtations with Dudley’s stepson and others, but there’s no actual knowledge she had been seen having intercourse with any man. Some of her closest confidantes thought she suffered from Rokitansky’s syndrome, which is to say her court gossiped more about what she couldn’t do than what she was able to do. But you don’t put Joseph Fiennes as a Dudley in the queen’s bed and expect this foxy satyr to behave. Not in a late 90s movie, and we wouldn’t want him behaving, either. He seems to have been born to play sexed-up historic personages. Albeit sensational use of churches and pillars, the camera could give you an unwanted case of vertigo, what with the elevated shots, the zooms, the fast pannings, swirls and twirls. With Richard Attenborough, Geoffrey Rush as Walsingham, the beautiful Fanny Ardant as Mary of Guise, Kathy Burke (finally speaking intelligibly) as Mary Tudor, David Craig (007) as the murderous John Ballard and Sir John Gielgud doing one last time his Pope routine.

What’s so resplendent about Elizabeth: The Golden Age? Most of its abbreviated historic context is about threadbare plots of various betrayals and muddled schemes to induce war, with no correlative recordings about the Elizabethan Era’s facilitation of the arts and commerce. Not even the queen’s gowns look sumptuous enough to warrant an age of unequaled royal splendour; despite being reproductions from paintings, the dresses (as well as the wigs) are banal and fagged. And so is the movie; it feels tired, as if the crew doing the first Elizabeth—Blanchett, Rush, director Shekhar Kapur, writer Michael Hirst, photographer Remi Adefarasin, film editor Jill Bilcock, and costumer Alexandra Byrne—came down with a contagion of the blahs. Even those of us who had many reservations about the first chapter’s high octane dizziness are destined to prefer it over this cut-rate chronic fatiguer, which waits until the last scene’s fade-out to tell us in words on a blackened screen what’s coming—England’s period of peace and prosperity after defeating the Spanish Armada. Maybe we all enjoyed the extreme liberties in the first because we saw it as a slick fancy, particularly in reference to Elizabeth getting bagged. In E:TGA, the queen’s avoiding the bed as a matter of self-protection, and she seems not so much the Virgin but the ReVirginized Queen, vicariously getting her jollies by pushing her most beloved Lady-in-Waiting into the arms of the Court’s most eligible stud. That would be Clive Owen, as Sir Walter Raleigh, yet because of his months-on-the-sea tan and dirtiness (he definitely could have used a more recognizable change of clothes now and then) he looks like a misplaced Othello. It’s as if Kapur, Hirst and co-writer William Nicholson performed penance for the prior lack of truthiness regarding her sex life. We gave Kapur a pass with Elizabeth on the basis of the strength of Blanchett’s thesping and the entertaining sinister effrontery he surrounded her with, but not this time, not with this cheap gilded tripe.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2001/2007 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.