In 1998, director Shekhar Kapur released 'Elizabeth,' his ornate and spectacular vision of the early reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The film may not have been a box office heavyweight, but it brought home Oscar gold and racked up plenty of critical favor, enough so that nearly ten years later, Kapur was able to film a sequel. 'Elizabeth: The Golden Age' reunites the original cast and picks up where the first film left off, this time focusing on the Queen's conflicted nature as England teeters on the verge of war.
By now, Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) is no stranger to her enemies. Her imprisoned cousin Mary (Samantha Morton) is secretly plotting the Queen's assassination, King Philip II of Spain (Jordi Molla) is mounting a naval fleet capable of breaching the English coast, and extremists in her own country are more than willing to join in the mounting quarrel. As she holds to her convictions and tries to keep England safe, Elizabeth befriends a seafaring explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), who seems to take a liking to the Queen's company and not just to her position of power. As war looms and an assassin's bullet is always a breath away, Elizabeth must rely on her closest advisor (Geoffrey Rush) and a wise sage (David Threlfall) to help her make sense of her new challenges as Queen.
'The Golden Age' is a gorgeous period piece that faithfully recreates historical England, right down to the smallest cobblestone. The costumes are intricately designed, the sets look impossibly realistic, the details are simply staggering. Some critics have called the film slow, but I thought it moved along at a brisk pace for a historical character drama. The dialogue is succinct, the themes aren't repetitive, and we're given glimpses of a queen that is a logical extension of her younger self. Better still, the actors (particularly Blanchett, Rush, and Owen) seem to be giving their souls to the film, turning in performances that are worthy of nominations. However, the picture does have serious problems.
'The Golden Age' is by no means a bad film, it just seems to think it’s better than it actually is. At times, the film even borders on pretension -- for every intimate character exchange, there's a brash explosion of allegory and symbology, bordering on hubris. The last act is an exercise in banality, abandoning the historical narrative in favor of surreal imagery, allusions to spiritual conflicts, and slow motion shots that sweep over every scene. Some may argue that these moments are examples of Kapur's audacious style, but I feel they're simply the work on an overindulgent director. Indeed, some scenes both overstate their points and bring the momentum of 'The Golden Age' to a sudden halt.
It doesn't help that Kapur seems to be throwing random darts at a board covered in Elizabethan lore. Upon its release, the original 'Elizabeth' was the subject of some controversy, with various outlets pointing out historical inaccuracies made for the benefit of the narrative. In 'The Golden Age,' those historical liberties have been taken to a new level. Facts aren't merely altered, they're butchered to such a degree that 'The Golden Age' becomes far more fictitious than suits my taste. If a director is looking to make a fantastical morality tale with no resemblance to actual events, why use such infamous historical figures to do it? 'The Golden Age' is a historical farce that has no business being viewed as truth.
"Woman... Warrior... Queen” is the film’s tagline, and while we get plenty of Elizabeth the Woman, we don't see much of Elizabeth the Warrior or Queen. Her moments as a monarch merely make her seem out of control and on the verge of a breakdown -- as if they’re designed to make us feel empathy for her position in the court, rather than showing us her ability to lead. Her brief appearance as a horse-mounted armored warrior may lead viewers to assume the film is about to take an exciting turn, but alas, she simply gives a speech, retires to her tent, and waits (in her nightgown!) for the battle to reach its unforeseeable conclusion. Unlike 'Elizabeth,' 'The Golden Age' doesn't present a bold woman ascending to the throne; it presents a psychologically damaged woman who relies on everyone around her for decisions and support.
'Elizabeth' was an Oscar winning masterpiece of feminism and power, but 'The Golden Age' departs from everything that made the original great. If I didn't know better, I would guess that the two films had been helmed by entirely different directors. In the end, 'The Golden Age' doesn't have a lot going for it. If you view it as a companion piece to the original film, you may find some things to enjoy. Otherwise, prepare to be underwhelmed and disappointed.
The sequel to 'Elizabeth' comes to Blu-ray with a beautiful, sometimes gorgeous, picture presentation that appears to be every bit identical to the HD DVD release of 2008. The 1080p/VC-1 (1.85:1) encode displays terrific definition throughout much of the movie’s runtime. From the ornate, elaborate clothing to the smallest characteristic of the stoned buildings, the finest details are visible, often distinct, and lovely to look at. In medium and close-up shots, facial complexions reveal excellent, natural textures and skin pores. The transfer also shows spot-on contrast that provides several scenes with incredible dimension and depth. The varied color palette is vibrant and elegant with very bold reds and striking splashes of gold.
The only thing keeping the high-def image from earning a higher score are some weak black levels that take away some depth and detail at certain points of the film. Some outdoor nighttime scenes are quite elegant, but low-lit interiors come off muddy and almost grey. Aside from that, 'Elizabeth: The Golden Age' is a marvelous looking film in high-definition.
The real surprise of this historical drama is a rich sound design that actually makes great use of the entire system. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is a highly active one with atmospherics that travel all through the soundfield.
If not the echoes of shoes walking on stone or the faint distant sounds of voices, then the discrete effects aboard Raleigh's pirate ship will envelop listeners with precise directionality. Interior acoustics are lovely and add a sense of realism while dialogue reproduction is well-centered in the middle of the screen. Low bass is also put to wonderful use, especially in the last half hour of the film with the blasts of canon fire. The entire front soundstage feels warm and expansive with a sharp, stable mid-range, clear details, and imaging that reaches deep into the room. The musical score also lends itself superbly into the background, keeping viewers immersed and engaged in the drama at all times. In the end, this lossless mix is an absolute delight for dialogue-driven film.
Universal Studios Home Entertainment ports over the same collection of bonus material from the previous HD DVD release, which is itself taken from the DVD. The assortment is not as extensive as I would like, but there’s plenty of good stuff to be found.
Visionary director Shekhar Kapur returns to helm 'Elizabeth: The Golden Age,' which also sees Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush reprising their roles. The sequel shows the same sort of stylish elegance and beauty as its predecessor, but it fails to capture the same gripping emotion and drama by paying more attention to histrionics than accurate history. The Blu-ray arrives with the same excellent audio/video presentation as the HD DVD, along with the same package of supplements. Overall, fans of the film will have little to complain about, while others can enjoy the picture and sound.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.