A lurid sort of Christopher Hitchens vision of history pervades Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Shekhar Kapur’s sequel to his 1998 art-house hit Elizabeth.
The earlier film, which made a star of Cate Blanchett as the eponymous Virgin Queen, celebrated the triumph of bright, happy Elizabethan Protestantism over the dark, unwholesome Catholic world of Bloody Mary. Even so, that film’s church-bashing was tame compared to that of this sequel, in which everything bad, evil and corrupt in the world is ultimately the bitter fruit of Religion. And by Religion, I mean Catholicism.
Yes, technically Protestantism might be a form of religious devotion too. But The Golden Age carefully expunges anything like actual belief or religiosity from its minimal portrayal of the faith affiliation of its heroine. Elizabeth might kneel in a brightly lit church in decorously silent, solitary prayer, but it’s Catholics who pray out loud, usually in spooky Latin, read from prayer books and clutch rosary beads, and surround themselves with ominous berobed clerics bestowing church sanction on all manner of sinister goings-on. Worst of all, it’s Catholics who have religious ideas and motivations.
If someone says something like “God has spoken to me,” it’s a sure bet that (a) the speaker is a Catholic, and (b) whatever God had to say spells trouble for non-Catholics. Ditto any reference to “true believers,” “God’s work,” “legions of Christ,” you name it. In this world, God-talk is troubling Catholic behavior; Protestants don’t talk to, or about, God. Their religion is little more than a slogan for conscience, religious freedom, and of course heroic resistance to Catholic oppression.
“I will not punish my people for their beliefs — only for their deeds,” says Elizabeth, conveniently forgetting that in the last movie she rammed the Act of Uniformity through Parliament, outlawing the Catholic Mass and imposing compulsory attendance at Anglican services. In this version of history, the hosts of Catholics martyred under Elizabeth are all traitors and conspirators. “Every Catholic in England is a potential assassin,” Elizabeth’s advisors helpfully remind her in an early scene. Well, then, every Catholic in England is a potential political prisoner too.
Historically, the film is very loosely tethered to events from the 1580s, notably the execution of Mary Stuart (wasted Samantha Morton) and the defeat of the Spanish Armada of Philip II of Spain (Jordi Mollà). Opening titles inform us that Philip (a “devout Catholic,” in case you were wondering) has “plunged Europe into holy war,” and “only England stands against him.” Whom this holy war is being waged against, if “only England stands against him,” is not specified. Presumably the reference is to resistance to Turkish encroachment in the Mediterranean, but far be it from The Golden Age to muddy the waters of Catholic warmongering by mentioning Muslim expansion.
In attacking England, Philip is convinced that he’s on a mission from God: “England is enslaved to the devil,” he declares. “We must set her free.” Certain that God is on his side as he leads his nation into a holy war that becomes a debacle, Philip couldn’t be a blacker, nuttier Hollywood villain if his middle initial were W. Other flirtations with topicality in this pre-election year include assassins and conspirators praying secretly in a foreign language while plotting their murderous attacks, and the Machiavellian Sir Francis Walsingham (returning Geoffrey Rush) torturing a captured conspirator during an interrogation. (Tom Hollander, who costarred with Rush in the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, is running around somewhere in this picture, an odd juxtaposition in another film that ends with a sea battle with cannons.)
The film does go on to concede that the Spanish have other grievances against the English besides religion, such as the Queen’s tolerant stance on English pirates like Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) raiding Spanish ships. But it’s all a big circle: The raids are rationalized on the grounds that Philip is Elizabeth’s enemy, and the more gold English privateers seize from Spanish vessels, the less Philip has to wage war on England. That the raids give Philip more justification for going to war hardly matters, since we already know that he’s on a mission from God.
The romanticized Hollywood view of heroic English piracy against the galleons of Catholic Spain in old Errol Flynn–type movies like The Sea Hawk has always rubbed me the wrong way, and it hasn’t gotten any better with the passing of time. Or the substitution of Owen for Flynn.
The film’s romantic intrigues are if possible duller than its religio-political ones, though here at least the actors are able — occasionally — to rise above their material. Not always; in some scenes even Blanchett seems absurdly lost amid the puerility of her character’s romantic woes.
The original Elizabeth imagined the young queen carrying on a flagrant affair with Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes), but ended with its protagonist reinventing herself as a kind of Protestant Madonna figure, an iconic “Virgin Queen” (or at least “Like A Virgin” Queen, to borrow a phrase from another self-reinventing Madonna).
In this film, Elizabeth maintains her celibate image, her singleness given a feminist gloss in a closing monologue: “Unmarried, I have no master; childless, I am mother to my people. God give me strength to bear this mighty freedom.” The freedom of the single career woman!
As in the earlier film, the queen holds herself aloof from the constant pressure to marry and produce an heir, though there is no shortage of unsuitable suitors. There are more sparks with Raleigh, though he is more drawn to dewy young Bess (Abbie Cornish), a favored lady-in-waiting on whom the queen in turn dotes tenderly enough to suggest that the triangle goes all the way around. (There were also hints of something between Elizabeth and a lady-in-waiting in the original film.)
Elizabeth’s wonder at Raleigh’s rhapsodic account of his arrival in the New World is about as close to a positive religious experience as The Golden Age can muster. The ocean, Elizabeth muses, is a very “image of eternity,” and she wonders, “Do we discover the new world, or does the new world discover us?”
When it comes to literal religiosity, though, The Golden Age’s sensibilities are wholly unsympathetic. The climax, a weakly staged destruction of the Spanish Armada, is a crescendo of church-bashing imagery: rosaries floating amid burning flotsam, inverted crucifixes sinking to the bottom of the ocean, the rows of ominous berobed clerics slinking away in defeat.
Pound for pound, minute for minute, Elizabeth: The Golden Age could possibly contain more sustained church-bashing than any other film I can think of. Certainly the premise of The Da Vinci Code was far more objectionable, and The Magdalene Sisters was more absolute in its moral color-coding. (The torture of a young Catholic conspirator, even though guilty, represents a shade of grey that The Magdalene Sisters’s black-and-white approach would never have permitted.)
But in The Da Vinci Code the heavies were a secret cabal within the Church, not the visible hierarchy and all Catholics everywhere. An albino monk assassin is one thing (Opus Dei not being available in the sixteenth century, this film’s priest-assassin is supplied by the Jesuits). Here, “every Catholic in England” is at least potentially an assassin. The Magdalene Sisters may have been agitprop, but it highlighted genuine abuses within a Catholic institution, rather than depicting the Church and the Catholic faith as a force for evil and celebrating resistance to Catholicism as heroic humanism.
How is it possible that this orgy of anti-Catholicism has been all but ignored by most critics? As with The Da Vinci Code, early reviews of The Golden Age seem to be roundly dismissive, while sticking to safe, noncommittal charges of general lameness.Note: One of the few reviews in a major outlet that doesn’t ignore the film’s anti-Catholicism ran in my local New York area paper, the Newark Star-Ledger. Critic Stephen Whitty writes that the film “equates Catholicism with some sort of horror-movie cult, with scary close-ups of chanting monks and glinting crucifixes. There’s even a murderous Jesuit, played by Rhys Ifans like a Hammer-movie bad guy, or a second cousin to poor pale Silas from The Da Vinci Code.”
If the object of the film’s vitriol were any group outside Christendom — say, if praying in Arabic were the sure sign of dangerous fanaticism, and if a Muslim prince were making holy war on Christendom with the blessings of all the eminent imams — would there be any shortage of critical objections to such stereotyping? As a lover of film criticism as well as film, I find the reviews more depressing than the film.
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I wanted to let you know that I just read my hometown paper’s review of the new Elizabeth movie and it commented on how heavily the Catholic Church gets bashed. So take heart; some people are thinking clearly! I live in Ogden, Utah.
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I had the opportunity to read your review of Elizabeth about a week ago. I will start this by stating that I am a Catholic of 55 years. I did watch the film in question, as well as the other films referenced in your review. I think what really bothered me was your blatant attack on the quality of the film and the acting based overwhelmingly on your assumed role as “defender of the faith”.
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I’ll keep this simple: Thank you for your review of Elizabeth: The Golden Age. It was excellent.
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Just a point I think you overlooked about Elizabeth: The Golden Age, namely the British origins of it.
It helps (I think) to understand how Elizabeth I is seen by the large majority of the British public, she’s a mythologised figure tied up with the British identity, similar to George Washington is for American viewers. A greater black/white divide is down to her status rather than anti-Catholicism per se.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.