Some movies are made to entertain us, others to inform, titillate or provoke. This one seems to have been made expressly for the purpose of winning the Oscars for Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction. It certainly wasn’t produced to give us a rigorously authentic account of Queen Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) at the time of the Spanish Armada or a deeply insightful examination of England’s Virgin Queen as a human being. While 1998’s Elizabeth was fairly sober-sided historical drama, director Shekhar Kapur has this time offered up As Ye Olde World Turns.
The film starts in 1585 with Catholic Spain and Protestant England glaring across the Channel and calling each other nasty names. The fanatically devout Spanish King, Phillip II (Jordi Mollà), sees the English Queen as a mortal threat (or an obstacle to his ambitions) and appears to be conspiring with Elizabeth’s cousin, the deposed Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton), the true Queen in the eyes of Rome, to remove her from the throne. Back home she has to deal with advisors who see every English Catholic as a potential Spanish spy and their queen’s lack of a husband or heir as worrisome as well.
As Elizabeth entertains suitors from various royal houses around Europe, a Catholic plot to assassinate her, apparently with the backing of her cousin, Mary, takes shape. Into this strides Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), looking like he stepped off the cover of a romance novel. Intrigued by the explorer, she encourages her favorite lady-in-waiting, Elizabeth Throckmorton, whom she calls “Bess” (Abbie Cornish), to pursue him on the Queen’s behalf, beginning a ticklish triangular relationship.
In the meantime, the Spanish conspiracy is getting uncomfortably close. Bess’ brother is exposed as a member and executed, driving her to seek comfort from Raleigh, the kind of comfort that produces a baby out of wedlock. The Queen’s closest advisor, Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), discovers his own brother is also a member of the plot.
The real probably with this movie is simply that it fails to find a balance between the Raleigh, Bess and Elizabeth story and the momentous historical events that frankly ought to be the chief focus of the film. According to what’s on the screen, most of Elizabeth’s decisions in this period were influenced by a case of the screaming thigh sweats for Raleigh. For his part, the famous explorer is less of character than a walking testosterone spill. Clive Owen does his level best to invest him with some depth but he can’t manufacture what doesn’t exist in a script that seems to buy into every fantastic legend that Raleigh ever invented about himself.
Cate Blanchett is superb in the role that now seems to be a rite of passage for British film actresses. Seriously, how many movies about this particular monarch have there been in the last decade alone? Helen Mirren hit the daily double by playing both Queens Elizabeth in successive movies. Blanchett certainly deserves the Best Actress nomination for this role, but it was mostly in the service of a movie that doesn’t know what it’s about. It’s a damn shame that so much time, effort and craft was put into a project with so little sense of direction.
For all the criticism that this movie received for its soapy plot and questionable historicity, one charge that it did not deserve is being anti-Catholic. True, King Phillip II of Spain is shown as being a religious fanatic with dreams of conquest, but only because he was. To believe that people can’t tell the difference between the Catholic Church today and what it was in Spain during the wars of the Protestant Reformation is condescending at best, insulting at worst.