A loose grasp of history doesn't dim the spectacular pleasures of this bombastic costume drama.
History majors will wish that "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" came with accuracy disclaimers, and comparative-religion majors might wince at the film's ugly anti-Catholic imagery (did heavenly choirs really sing as rosary beads sank beneath the sea during the defeat of the Spanish Armada?). But as a pseudo-historical fable, a romantic triangle and a blood-and-thunder melodrama, the film can't be faulted. It's a hundredweight of cheap thrills wrapped in gold brocade.
The story opens with Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) declaring that despite the determination of dastardly Spanish King Philip (Jordi Molla) to impose Catholicism on the half of the English populace that rejected it, her kingdom would never punish its citizens for their beliefs. In fact, during her reign, for a papist to convert a Protestant was high treason, carrying a death sentence. The Spanish Inquisition was plenty bad, but director Shakhar Kapur fears we won't get the idea unless he paints 16th-century England as an oasis of religious tolerance.
Still, bogus history can make a crackling good adventure yarn, and Kapur piles on the treachery and romance. Samantha Morton as Mary Stuart, Elizabeth's rival for the throne, acts inbred and twitchy; Rhys Ifans plays a Jesuit conspirator with lewd gusto, and Molla affects a villainous limp. Elizabeth's adviser Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush in pious fuddy-duddy mode) helps her fend off assassination plots, while holding Philip at bay by entertaining marriage proposals from politically powerful suitors.
But the virgin Queen's heart only flutters for dashing Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen, who deserves an Oscar for keeping a straight face). No sooner does he drape his cape across a puddle than Elizabeth assigns her favorite lady-in-waiting, Bess (Abbie Cornish), to keep company with Raleigh, the better to keep an eye on the intriguing rogue. He wants Elizabeth to fund his colony in the New World; she feels a dizzying susceptibility to his charm, and Bess, unrestrained by court decorum, makes a beeline into his arms.
Blanchett, with her gift for looking beautiful in a distinguished way, gets wonderfully lavish costumes. There are neck ruffs and trains that would look right at home in Italian Vogue, and late in the story Elizabeth rallies her army in body-hugging armor that resembles the Silver Surfer.
The big sea-battle finale is staged like the climax of a summer blockbuster, as Raleigh stuffs his ship with gunpowder, steers it into the enemy fleet, sets it afire and swings to safety on a rope before the explosion. The happily-ever-after end title declares that Elizabeth led her nation into a period of peace and prosperity; actually, it was heading toward civil war.
This isn't historical fabrication, it's mutilation. But for all its lapses, this is probably the liveliest, most vibrant Elizabethan production since Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet." If accuracy is sacrificed for spectacle, it's remarkable how little it's missed.
Colin Covert 612-673-7186