“My bitches wear my collars!” screams Queen Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) upon discovering that her lady-in-waiting Bess (Abbie Cornish) is pregnant by that walking testicular gland Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen). It’s not quite Bette Davis’ classic riposte to Joan Collins in The Virgin Queen (“Mistress Throckmorton. Is this your pet swine? You’ve cast pearls before him.”), but it is one of the few moments when Elizabeth: The Golden Age puts aside its pretensions and becomes a brilliantly ecstatic piece of kitsch.
Mainly it’s an extended game of 16th-century Barbie, an eye-popping pageant parade masquerading as rapturous religious art (it even climaxes with a pieta: the Virgin Queen, you see?). Pardon me while I whip out my Hogwarts wand and shout “Ridiculus!” at this awards-baiting gobsmack, which nonetheless has a good many pleasures in which to partake. Not least of these is the sight of director Shekhar Kapur trying to one-up the swirling camera-cum-incessant soundtrack of a Martin Scorsese picture, even though there’s little need for such a psyche-unhinged style of filmmaking (as revealed by her constant succession of red-bewigged headdresses, this Elizabeth is a literal featherbrain). It’s still well-cast superficiality, especially in the case of Samantha Morton, who essays the treacherous Mary, Queen of Scots with beatific grandeur, though she’s denied a proper exit, as Kapur tellingly averts his gaze during Mary’s beheading for treason. Elizabeth: The Golden Age isn’t interested in contemplating bloody history so much as tracing a roller-coaster route to her majesty’s obligatory deification. But no amount of 360-degree twirls or hallowed shafts of light can distract from this monarch’s essential emptiness, not so different from the rag doll version of Elizabeth, a true child’s plaything, clasped tightly by the side of a young member of King Philip II’s (Jordi Mollà) court.
Keith Uhlich is co-editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.