THE BACK PAGES

Cate Blanchett’s crowning glory

What could be more regal than keeping your poise in a film that turns history into hokum?

Brian D. Johnson October 22 2007
THE BACK PAGES

Cate Blanchett’s crowning glory

What could be more regal than keeping your poise in a film that turns history into hokum?

Brian D. Johnson October 22 2007

Cate Blanchett’s crowning glory

film

What could be more regal than keeping your poise in a film that turns history into hokum?

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

This is the year of Cate Blanchett. She was relatively unknown when, at 29, she was crowned with a star-making role in Elizabeth, a movie about the making of a queen. Nine years later, the Australian actress has won her place among Hollywood royalty. As if to remind us that there’s no substitute for the real thing, she now returns to the throne in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. And, erasing any doubt that she’s the finest actress of her generation, next month she follows her incarnation of the English monarch with an equally iconic, shape-shifting turn as Bob Dylan in Tm Not There~the cubist portrait of an artist as a young punk who abdicates his role as crown prince of the ’60s counterculture. Both roles cry out for Oscar recognition. But Blanchett is more likely to be honoured for the sumptuous spectacle of The Golden Age—in which she maintains a preternatural poise while history is whipped into a hurricane of heroic melodrama.

Picking up the story three decades into Elizabeth I’s 45-year reign, the sequel covers a juicier sequence of events than the first movie. They include the beheading of the Protestant queen’s Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots; Elizabeth’s love triangle with Sir Walter Raleigh and her lady-in-waiting, Bess Throckmorton; and her Joan-ofArc-like rallying of the troops before England’s 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada. Despite such rich fodder—already well-mined by a 2005 miniseries starring Helen Mirren—the film doctors history with an airbrushed gloss of Harlequin romance and Hollywood hokum. Which makes Blanchett’s feat all the more miraculous: amid a circus of pinwheeling camera movements, and a script that surges with moral bombast, she

maintains a gyroscopic sense of control.

The Golden Age is a tale of holy war. Pitting English tolerance against the terror of Spanish fundamentalism, it sounds a contemporary resonance that director Shekhar Kapur says is deliberate: “Why make a film today,” he asks, “that is not relevant to today’s times, to today’s individual, political or psychological attitudes?” But his film doesn’t just reflect our times; it reflects our clichés.

The script takes its most lavish poetic licence in the portrayal of Sir Walter Raleigh—poet, pirate, New World explorer, courtier to the queen, and (if we are to believe the movie) a swashbuckling dude who single-handedly saved England from the swarthy evildoers and the plague of their Spanish Inquisition. The climactic scene has Raleigh leading a fireship attack on Spain’s armada from aboard his own burning vessel, mounting the bowsprit like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, then diving into the sea as his flaming ship sails like an incendiary bomb into the enemy fleet. The fire-ship attack did indeed happen, but Raleigh was charged with land defence. The film seems to have conflated him with Francis Drake. The script also fools with chronology, having Raleigh marry Bess before the battle, rather than three years later.

Fictionalizing history is a noble literary crime that goes back to Shakespeare and

Homer. The real issue arises when it makes the drama feel inauthentic. And some of The Golden Age’s more opulent excesses—from its torrid score to its painterly vistas of a digital armada—have a counterfeit ring.

But the cast keeps it real. Even if his Raleigh is overwritten, Clive Owen makes a delicious meal of the role. Unlike Joseph Fiennes, Elizabeth’s unctuous lover Robert Dudley in the first film, this smouldering suitor has charisma to match the queen’s. Returning as spymaster Walsingham, Geoffrey Rush uncovers a realm of pathos beneath the cunning. As Bess, Abbie Cornish has the allure of a young Kate Winslet. And Samatha Morton crackles as Mary—even if her beheading is staged with the elegance of a coronation, rather than the botched hack job that actually took place.

Blanchett, meanwhile, is magnificent. There’s an emotional translucence in her pale chameleon features. The intelligence is visible. You can see moods play across her face like wind on water: fear, whimsy, flirtation, suspicion, calculation, rage—and iron resolve. As a politician empowered by fashion, she’s equipped with a fantastic repertoire of wigs and costumes, culminating in her appearance as an armoured warrior on a white horse, unleashing the fury of God and England on the invading horde. Female roles do not get more heroic. So don’t be surprised if, for the second year in a row, the Oscar serves as a golden sceptre for another queen named Elizabeth. It’s her divine right. M