The Celluloid Age of English History

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“Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” the sequel to the 1998 film “Elizabeth” starring Cate Blanchett, is a tour de force of typecast characters, misunderstood historical situations, and boldly simplistic good-versus-evil plot lines. “The Golden Age” attempts to take the audience through a mere three years of Elizabeth’s 45-year reign, from 1585- 1588, when the Catholic threat was strongest against the Protestant queen. During this period, international forces attempted to stir rebellion in English hearts, while English Catholic recusants negotiated with various powers in order to restore the nation to the pope, even if their efforts threatened Elizabeth’s life. It was a turbulent time, and worthy of two hours of footage.

What a lost opportunity for the creators of this film! The most blatant problem with “The Golden Age” is the ponderous writing and direction, which left the audience hanging for minutes at a time during what the director deemed “significant” – actually contrived and boring – events. The inexplicable sex scene between Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) and a lady-in-waiting lasts over five minutes and is interspersed with images of a lonely queen wishing she could love a man as easily as her maids do. Mary Stuart finally loses her head about ten minutes after the audience loses its interest and is simply bored by the anticipation. A decision to go to war is built up to such an extent that one fellow moviegoer said quite audibly, “Attack them already!”

The less obvious problem with this movie is its odd depiction of its characters. Elizabeth – one of the world’s preeminent political figures – is presented as a madwoman who desires nothing more than love, companion- ship, and children. And she is portrayed as fervently in love with just one man: Walter Raleigh. Although other famous favorites make brief appearances – Sir Christopher Hatton, for example, often stands in the background – the best known of Elizabeth’s consorts, Leicester and Essex, are nowhere to be seen. Granted, they would have been in the Netherlands during the first half of the movie, but Leicester returned to defend his country against the Spanish Armada and died soon after, to Elizabeth’s intense grief. Her greatest devoted servant, William Cecil, never makes it to film, and that may be the biggest historical fallacy.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s supposed obsession with Raleigh gives the film the feeling of a romantic comedy – at least from time to time. The two go riding together, speak of love, kiss, and trust each other to perform their respective roles for the good of the realm. Raleigh goes to the queen, unbidden, in her time of emotional distress, and pro- vides wisdom and guidance that she seems to lack. In turn, Elizabeth experiences great hurt when Raleigh marries one of her ladies, and banishes them both from Court as she deals with the pain of having lost the only man who loved her.

In their zeal to simplify the story the creators of this movie missed an important opportunity to use Elizabeth’s famous flirtation in a very direct way. The success of Elizabeth’s reign, indeed her Golden Age, was directly linked to her ability to make close connections with the many members of her court, through flirtation or some other method of establishing relationships that instilled a sense of obligation in others without restricting her own free- dom. Her ambivalent responses kept courtiers and ambassadors guessing her next move instead of guiding or con- trolling her, a remarkable accomplishment for a 16th-century woman. Yet the movie implies that it was an inability to love that caused her fears, her incessant oscillation between happiness and sadness, and her stagnant answers on such weighty issues as that of marriage, the execution of her Catholic rival, Mary Stuart, and England’s response to the Spanish threat.

This “Elizabeth” also treats the religious politics of the age in a curious fashion. The real Elizabeth I created a deliberate disconnect between political loyalty and religious belief. The Treason Statutes enacted by her parliaments in 1581 and 1585 focused on secular loyalty, love for the queen, and independence from Jesuits (who were charged with attempting to arrange Elizabeth’s assassination) as a means of telling the difference between people who were traitors and dangerous subjects, and people who were merely English men and women obeying their conscience in the religious sphere. Elizabeth did not want to follow the path of her sister, “Bloody Mary,” who vigorously persecuted her religious opponents. Indeed, during Mary’s five-year reign, 300 people had been put to death for heresy; Elizabeth’s 45 years saw the executions of approximately 170 people for religious reasons, and only some of those were Catholics. Elizabeth saw the value in tolerance, and persecuted only those with rebellious or murderous intentions. As a result, the great majority of her Catholic subjects remained entirely loyal to her.

Nevertheless, “The Golden Age” depicts all Catholics as ruthless, crazy, blind, or merciless. Upon hearing that Elizabeth has survived an assassination attempt, Mary Stuart cries out in disappointment. Philip II of Spain – a one-time suitor of Elizabeth, and her former brother-in-law – is a religious fanatic who ignores his advisers during a time of war in order to stare at a candle for guidance. Spanish warriors take a prayer break in the middle of a battle, and fail to see a burning ship coming straight at them. (Actually, most of the Spanish Armada was blown off course by a “Protestant Wind,” so there wasn’t a climactic battle.) Catholic plotters revel in the anticipated chaos and bloodshed that will happen when they overthrow the Protestant government.

Early Modern England was sim- ply not that clearly divided. Among Elizabeth’s closest advisers were middling Protestants, radical Puritans, and religious conservatives such as Sir Christopher Hatton, who mayor may not have been Catholic himself. These many voices were welcomed to debate in the presence of the queen. She sup- ported and gave generously to her favorite court composer, William Byrd, despite his pronounced Catholicism, simply because he pledged his allegiance to her and created some of the most beautiful music of the century. A key point that goes unmentioned in this film is that, shortly before the events depicted, Elizabeth carne the closest she ever did to getting married, in a French match with the Due d’Anjou, a Catholic. During the pre- nuptial negotiations, she professed herself sympathetic to Catholicism and kept her Puritan advisers away until she achieved the alliances that were best for her realm.

Elizabeth’s greatest strength was her mixture of tact and ambivalence. She attempted to find common ground on which anyone could build rap- port with her. She followed that pol- icy with Catholics and Protestants (and Puritans, too); and she followed it with foreign states. She could play the Spanish against the French because with each she found common ground and the promise of building closer relationships. She didn’t look at Catholic nations as strictly the “enemy” to be repudiated, but rather as potential allies who required careful attention. Not until her person or her realm was threatened did she become belligerent, and even during the Armada she acted defensively.

What makes her an even more interesting figure is that she conformed to ideas of traditional womanhood – being coy dainty, and weak- but balanced it with the rhetoric and authority of a man, even a king. She swore like a man when events warranted, stabbed servants with a fork, and even threw her slipper at an insubordinate Francis Walsingham. None of these dramatic events appears in the film.

Those who played her game of court intrigue always ran the risk of seeing her turn from a “weak and feeble woman” into the monarch who had “the heart and stomach of a King, and a King of England, too!” Those are the words with which (as tradition says) Elizabeth rallied her troops as the Armada approached. But that splendid speech doesn’t make it into “The Golden Age,” either. It is not surprising that the filmmakers chose to omit one of her greatest lines; their production is not one of greatness – and it will soon be forgotten. Let’s hope that the wisdom of the real Elizabeth, as diplomat and politician, will last longer than these images of a contrived relationship between the queen and Sir Walter Raleigh.

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