It’s probably not codified anywhere, but I think one good rule of thumb for movies would point out that it’s misleading to refer to an “age” in your title if the movie itself barely spans three years (and spends half its running time dealing with matters of somewhat less than historical import, at that).
It is 1585 at the outset of “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” and the so-called Virgin Queen is dealing with threats both foreign and domestic. On one hand, the devoutly Catholic Philip II of Spain (Jordi Mollà) is marshalling his forces to force the Protestant Elizabeth from power. This would leave the way open for Mary I (Samantha Morton), AKA “the Queen of Scots,” Elizabeth’s Catholic cousin, whose supporters are using Elizabeth’s illegitimacy to bolster their claim. There’s even a conspiracy afoot to assassinate Elizabeth and free Mary from imprisonment. Based on all that, one would think all the court intrigue and espionage would be too much to cram into a mere two-hour movie.
And that’s where you’d be wrong. “The Golden Age” spends little time examining the machinations of those who would remove the Queen from power, but rather chooses to focus attention on the sort of/kind of romance between Elizabeth and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen). In the movie, Raleigh has just returned from founding a colony in the New World colony of Virginia, and her majesty is quite taken with his enthusiasm. Raleigh quickly becomes a trusted member of her inner circle. The two share long rides on horseback, introspective talks by the fire, and heartfelt conversations about duty and longing.
But who cares? These years were supposedly the height of the Elizabethan Era, yet the only recognizable elements in the movie are Mary’s death and the battle against the Spanish Armada. The rest consists of barely connected scenes, saturated with Kapur’s trademark deluge of color, predictable lighting, and endlessly repeated long shots lensed through opaque glass or the odd knothole. Pointless romantic meandering doesn’t gain dramatic heft just because you pretty it up, especially when there’s so much more meat behind the story at hand.
And “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” is hopefully disjointed. The story jumps around so much and with such inept transitions that at the end I couldn’t help but wonder if Kapur ended up shooting a five-hour movie and leaving most of what made sense on the cutting room floor. When we finally get to the battle against the Armada, Kapur also demonstrates he has no knack for shooting fight scenes, meaning the boffo climax looks less like epic warfare and more like “Shark Attack 3.”
Kapur does seem to have a personal grudge against Catholics, portraying Philip as a sniveling poster boy for short man’s disease and framing shots of the Armada’s sinking crucifixes with almost loving affection. So that’s always fun.
Not even Blanchett and Rush – two of the finest actors working today, or Morton – who stirs me to impure thoughts even as a supposedly pious figure, or Owen – who almost makes a pair of puffy pants look butch, can drag “The Golden Age” out of the morass in which Kapur has sunk it. The original “Elizabeth” was visually lush and quite engaging, but this is a sprawling mess.