Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Looking back on Elizabeth's Golden Age ... a self-serving myth?

I went to see Elizabeth: The Golden Age this weekend, and it proved a piece of cinema more thought provoking than I expected, although I can't completely endorse its sensibilities.

The film is a sweeping treatment of the forging of the British empire, but you do have to get past the overwrought, near-deification of the historic figure of Elizabeth (as played by the always amazing to watch Cate Blanchett); not to mention the rendering of romantic intrigues within the Queen's court that for me detracted from the subject's seriousness.

It's an interesting re-imagining of one of the most pivotal periods in English history, within the context of religious fanaticism that marks our own epoch. The film sometimes plays very loosely with historical fact in order to set up a clearly drawn battle between the ruthless, conquest-bent Spanish Catholics and the more enlightened, exploration-minded English Protestants. The Brits aren't portrayed as completely without fault by director Shekhar Kapur, but their failings are more nobly motivated by a too dogmatic service to principle and self-preservation.

Phillip II, the King of Spain and self-appointed moralistic avenger, at times comes across as simple minded in his child-like faith, affected speech, and mincing gait. He's marked as the obvious villain of the story early on as vampire-like he shies away from the sunlight. The dark complected Spaniard is, however, clever enough to orchestrate the pretext for a war to capture England's Queen, using fellow zealot Mary Queen of Scots as his sacrificial pawn.

The mind reels at what possible modern equivalents Kapur may be drawing comparisons to, but the most obvious parallel is to religious ideologues of all backgrounds and beliefs. Certainly some will see it as a propping up of besieged Western values, but I choose to look at it in a way that yields parallels to fanaticism at play on both sides of the hemispheric divide.

The film does fall back on the time-honored, stereotypical, light-dark duality in its portrayal of good and evil. The luminescently fair Elizabeth, brilliantly attired in her full royal regalia, embraces the ethos of the Age of Discovery, and she sees her rival Papists as a threat to her subjects' freedom of belief. At times wracked by self-doubt and insecurity, she's nonetheless shown as a figure of towering strength who, Christ-like, is willing to sacrifice her personal happiness in order to play the role of sovereign to her people.

There is a very problematic nod to the propaganda of empire, as Sir Walter Raleigh parades two Native Americans before his Queen, proclaiming their need for a ruler. He also offers her "gifts" of potatoes, tobacco and gold that were appropriated from the New World he's claimed in her name. It's a troubling glossing over of the subjugation of the peoples and looting of the resources of the Americas that the Europeans assumed was their divine right. This is a British-made costume drama with no avowed pretensions for documenting the complexities of history, so a more realistic interpretation of events may be expecting too much of it.

In the scene before the film's climactic sea battle, Elizabeth exhorts the troops to victory while astride her horse and fully suited in shimmering armor. It's the moment when she comes into her own as the shining shepherdess of England's Golden Age. With this film, Kapur has taken on the traditional role of praise-singing English bard, exalting the feats of rulers past to assure their lasting legacy in the popular imagination. It's an intriguing piece of modern myth making, but one whose murky ambitions I haven't yet fully grasped.
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