London, November 3, 2007 (Peter Malone) - This week's movie headlines proclaim that the Vatican has condemned this sequel to the 1998 Elizabeth. The Golden Age is denounced as an attempt to undermine Christianity and the makers of the film are seen as part of an atheist plot promoting secularism. This film is not to be confused with The Golden Compass, based on the novels by Philip Pullman which the Catholic League in the United States has condemned before its December 2007 release and has already published a booklet to combat the film and Pullman's ideas, again a promotion of atheism.
This means that Catholic reviewers and commentators will be involved in these discussions in the coming months.
A point of clarification. The condemnation of Elizabeth - The Golden Age comes from a historian, Professor Franco Cardoni who has taught in the Lateran University in Rome. He and other like commentators have pointed out that the antagonism between England and Spain in the latter part of the 16th century have been played up: the bitter aftermath and persecutions that came from the Reformation and the role of the Papacy, itself a temporal power as well as a church power, in the wars of Europe. The claim is that the film does not adequately represent history, in fact, misrepresenting it.
Of course, this is what happens in many dramatisations of past events in theatre and cinema. We accept it in Shakespearean ‘histories'. We accept it in biopics. These are dramas rather than documentaries.
Another point of clarification. ‘The Vatican' speaks with many voices and writers in L'Osservatore Romano and speakers on Vatican Radio, for instance, who catch the eye of the media, especially when controversial, are referred to as ‘The Vatican' as if the opinions expressed are the Pope's or the Roman Curia's views.
The main problem with Elizabeth - the Golden Age , however, is that it treats an extremely sensitive period in English history in a jingoistic and overly partisan manner: the aftermath of the excommunication of Elizabeth, the aftermath of the executions of Protestants by Queen Mary as well as the persecution of Catholics by the government, the tensions with Spain, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots and the attack of the Spanish Armada and its defeat. This is all stirring stuff and has been included in various films and television programs about Elizabeth and about Mary Queen of Scots.
The problem with this film for all audiences and especially for Catholics is the tone, the simplistic English patriotism and the blackening (literally in their dress) of Catholics. Some of the dialogue sounds quite outmoded, straight out of those antagonistic days of suspicions of other churches, something that applied to all suspicions and spats between Papists and, in the schoolboy jargon of previous decades, ‘Protty dogs'. Serious advisers to Elizabeth tell her that every Catholic in the realm is a danger to her, a potential assassin. While the film rightly shows the plots of Philip II of Spain, the Babington attack on Elizabeth and some Catholic conspirators, the ‘every Catholic' rhetoric is a bit much. Fortunately, Elizabeth herself is given some lines which moderate this extremism - although she is also made to say that if the Armada lands it will bring the Inquisition which seems to be on board. She proclaims freedom of thought, which is not quite accurate in view of her persecutions and executions.
This is a film which would not be helpful as a basis for ecumenical discussions between Anglicans and Catholics.
As a film, it is a colourful spectacle that covers 1585-1588, momentous years with the death of Mary Queen of Scots and the Armada. The title is misleading. Elizabeth's ‘golden age' was to follow this period, the subject of the next sequel, perhaps. Another fact is that Elizabeth was 52 at the opening of the film and, despite Cate Blanchett's best efforts (and she is one of the reasons for seeing the film), she does not seem near 52. There is romance with Clive Owen's debonair piratical Walter Raleigh, intrigue with Geoffrey Rush's world-weary Walsingham, and Drake's confrontation of the Armada is dwarfed by Raleigh's heroics (who uses his cloak over the puddle as his ticket of introduction to the queen). But, while the film has many interesting sequences, the total lacks the forceful impact of the original.
Demonising the enemy can be a deliberate plot - or, as in this case it would seem, not a plot but lazy scripting, black versus white stuff. Philip II is played as devilish caricature, with a bandy-legged walk, fidgety in the extreme (often with his rosary beads), blessing the armada, denouncing Elizabeth with epithets of ‘bastard' and ‘whore' and proclaiming Catholicism in a style reminiscent of the current president of Iran when he rants against the west. He is surrounded by grim-visaged monks and perpetual religious chant - with all in black. Rhys Ifans also turns up as a fanatical Jesuit (parallel to Daniel Craig's assassin priest in Elizabeth ). No redeeming features here - except, perhaps, the dignity with which Samantha Morton's Mary Queen of Scot shows on the gallows.
We do not usually talk about ‘angelising' but this is what this film does for Elizabeth. While the screenplay helpfully shows the weaker sides of Elizabeth's behaviour, her infatuation with Raleigh, her jealous outbursts against her lady in waiting, Bess Throckmorton, most of the film proposes her as angel to Philip's devil. Beautiful, beautifully gowned, articulate, noble demeanour, she becomes more and more the competent stateswoman, eventually donning armour to support the troops against the Armada, sitting horseback offering rousing encouragement in the manner of Olivier's Henry V and then, ethereal in nightdress, roaming the fields and standing, in a long shot, like an angelic icon on the cliffs confronting the enemy, a guardian angel of her soldiers. And that is describing it mildly.
Elizabeth - The Golden Age is something of a surprise and a letdown. The potential to make a 21st century historical epic that was able to acknowledge the passionate beliefs on both sides along with the wrongs would have made stimulating and relevant cinema. Bias, as always (think Braveheart or The Patriot ) would have been inevitable but, unfortunately, this film gets carried away with itself.