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23 October 2007

Golden Balls

It was inevitable that I would see Elizabeth: The Golden Age (AKA Elizabeth I II) given that a) it stars Clive Owen, b) I saw the parts of it being filmed in my college, c) it involves Tudor history (with hindsight - ha!) and d) it stars Clive Owen. In fact, I've been looking forward to the film's release ever since the filming took place during my finals (revision...Clive...revision...Clive...) and I have to say that I was sorely disappointed.

Elizabeth (part I) was great: it was enjoyable, it involved Joseph Fiennes and it was even reasonably historically accurate (enough for us to watch in my A-level history class on the Tudors without tearing it apart too much). Perhaps I prefer the part of Elizabeth's reign covered in the first film: from Mary's dying days where Elizabeth was locked up in the Tower unsure whether she would live, let alone whether she would be queen, until the fall of Robert Fiennes - I mean, Robert Dudley. Most historical films have a love story element and so, of course, Elizabeth focuses on that between Dudley and Elizabeth.

Dudley is actually one of my favourite historical characters - not just because he was especially handsome when Joseph Fiennes played him. I suppose he was a bit of a cad, really. They are childhood sweethearts but when Dudley's treacherous family falls out of favour (after the whole Lady Jane Grey palaver) and Elizabeth is imprisoned, he marries up to a Norfolk gal named Amy Robsart. At the time, this wasn't a bad match for him, as his land and title were confiscated after his father and brother were executed. Amy was pretty enough but pretty boring and locally-minded, as well as being about 10 years older than him. Then Elizabeth becomes queen and everything changes. Robert is her favourite but being queen she cannot just marry him. Instead, she must execute her oh-so-complicated foreign policy, which was centred primarily around flirting with as many European princes as possible, in order to keep France and Spain from invading. Besides, Robert was married so it wouldn't do for him to leave wifey, even for the queen (after all, look what happened when her father, Henry VIII had wanted a divorce...). Nonetheless, poor old Amy was rather neglected by her husband as his star rose at court. Many historians have speculated about what went on between Elizabeth and Robert - David Starkey thinks she bestowed sexual favours upon him along with his title.

It was conceivable that Elizabeth might have granted the divorce and married Robert herself but then Amy had the ill grace to fall down the stairs at her Oxfordshire home and break her neck. This created a massive scandal: some thought she had killed herself, others thought that Dudley or one of his men had pushed her so that he could marry Elizabeth. Later evidence showed that Amy may have been suffering from breast cancer, which could have weakened her bones and meant that a simple fall could have broken her neck. Nonetheless, marriage was out and Robert eventually went off and married one of Elizabeth's ladies in waiting.

Thus begins The Golden Age:

Twenty years later. England, 1585. Elizabeth is getting on a bit and is increasingly worried about Philip I's Spain and his desire to save Protestant England from itself. She is still playing the, "I'll marry you if you don't declare war on us" game (which would have been my strategy in Civ II if it had been an option), even though she was 50-odd and many of her suitors were in their 20s. Her friends are growing scarcer (Dudley had to leave court after the death of his wife) but at least she has three loyal friends: Francis Walsingham (her spymaster general), Bess Throckmorton (her favourite lady in waiting) and Walter Raleigh, newly returned from pirating Spanish ships. Who could possibly resist such a rugged, handsome sailor, freshly back from his adventures in the New World and even naming the first English colony Virginia in her honour? Certainly not Elizabeth and not Bess Throckmorton either. Raleigh is, after all, played by a certain Mr Owen.

Of course, given the choice between the pretty 20-year-old Bess and the ageing queen (who wouldn't be permitted to marry him anyway), there wasn't really much competition, although Raleigh is too keen for the queen's approval to tell her so to her face. It all goes horribly wrong when Bess gets pregnant and has to leave the court. Elizabeth is now truly alone - betrayed by her friends and with the Spanish set to attack at any moment and plots on her life coming left, right and centre, not to mention that annoying cousin of hers locked up in some cold, northern castle.

Part of me wonders whether this film is Republican propaganda: don't elect Hilary Clinton! Look at what happened to Elizabeth when she fell in love. She wasn't thinking, she was emoting! She knighted Walter Raleigh because she wanted to give him one but couldn't give him one so gave him something else. She was wild with jealousy of this younger woman (which probably only reminded her of the affaire du coeur with Robert Dudley) and terrified that she would die in a Spanish prison leaving England conquered and was too damn irrational. Heck! She signed her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots', death warrant and then tried to change her mind when she knew it would be too damn late so that she could wipe the blame from her hands! Gosh, we really do need a man in charge of things. Perhaps this is giving the film makers too much credit but I'm sure the real Elizabeth would have been horrified to see herself immortalised as such.

Luckily, with the help of a good wind (or "God's breath") and Cap'n Clive's excellent sailing (and cannon-dodging and skin diving) technique, the Spanish are destroyed in (as the end notes declare), "Spain's most humiliating naval defeat" (pop quiz: name any other humiliating Spanish naval defeats). I thought this should have read, "Spain were never ridiculed as much again until Monty Python." Philip I, meanwhile, was played as a god-fearing, blue-eyed psycho, who carried round a voodoo doll of Elizabeth and muttered to himself in a Gollum-like voice. All of the Spaniards were comedy characters - real party poopers who were just too busy praying to have a good time. They didn't exactly do themselves any favours with the audience.

The factual inaccuracies are too extensive to list here but particularly grating was this: Mary Queen of Scots spent the first 20 years of her life in France so what's with the Scottish accent? Did they think that would confuse an American audience? This was a shame because Samantha Morton was probably the best actor in the film.

The director did get points for not using the clich├ęd "I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman..." Armada inspiration speech, though she was dressed up as Elizabot atop her horse on the south coast. Maybe he got so much stick for using the famous, "This is God's doing and it is marvellous in our eyes" line in Elizabeth, which were, reportedly, Elizabeth's first words on hearing of the death of her sister, that he decided to steer well clear second time around.

That said, there wasn't really much in the way of dialogue at all: it was mainly moody silences, dramatic music, Elizabeth's rotating wardrobe of beautiful, rich-coloured gowns, fire, and St John's College, Cambridge looking gorgeous (ah, the cloisters! Ah, the Bridge of Sighs! Ah, the cloak/puddle scene! So much more fun when you've seen them being filmed). Clive wasn't on top form although he did make an incredibly hot Walter Raleigh. Then again, with lines like, "Here. This is a potato," and "I have loved you as a queen but your mate Bess is fit as so I screwed her instead" he didn't have a lot with which to work.

It's never a good idea to see a historical film with a historian (especially as the Tudors were my father's specialist period) and I was the only member of our party who even vaguely enjoyed the film and that was only because of Clive and John's. The Craig Armstrong score was good too.

Ah well. Anticipation... holds true again.

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