*Elizabeth: The Golden Age (PG-13)
Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Kimball's Twin Peak, Tinseltown
Torture! Intrigue! Sex! Treachery! Holy war! Cate Blanchett in royal drag! Clive Owen in pirate drag! We are highly amused. If 10th-grade history was as much fun as this, no one would ever cut class.
Seriously, though: Why don't they teach us history in school like this, full of passion and power and, you know, people, when they're as mesmerizing and complex as this?
With Elizabeth, director Shekhar Kapur made a movie so enthralling that audiences forgot to remember that it was culled from history, and so "must" be dull. With his long-time-coming follow-up, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, he does it again, continuing, ahem, the adventures of the woman who is perhaps the greatest monarch England has ever known with a thrilling film rife with ardor and obsession. Not to mention enough contemporary relevance to keep the entire writing staff of the National Review in a tizzy over how to interpret it.
Spain, you see, in 1585, is threatening to bring the Catholic jihad of the Inquisition to Protestant England which "God has abandoned," lisps the Spanish king, Philip II (Jordi Moll) perhaps, oh, aboard a kickass Armada. Moderate Elizabeth (Blanchett) refuses to punish the Catholics in her country merely for their beliefs, even though they make up the half of the population that still "clings to the old superstition."
But her barely leashed guard dog Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) will take care of the punishing: his hobbies including torturing "papists" (because torture is one of those horrible things they did back in the uncivilized, ancient past) as well as ferreting out all manner of plots against Her Majesty ... one of which looks to trace itself all the way back to Elizabeth's sister, the exiled Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton).
It all allows Blanchett, reprising her role as the queen, to storm around furiously, howling at Spanish ambassadors and such. The intervening decade has only seen her supremacy as an actor increase, and she is a fiery storm of a woman, alive and fervent and elegant and human.
And so we have Elizabeth as indomitable spirit and quietly lonely heart, too: She is instantly taken with the explorer, adventurer and "pirate" Walter Raleigh (Owen), the moment he presents himself at court with gifts from the New World. He says things like, "Do we discover the New World, or does the New World discover us?" and he looks like Clive Owen, so of course she falls madly for him. But she can't give in can she? what with being married to England and all. What's a girl monarch to do?
War is hell, but it's also a good outlet for frustrated lust, so she straps on her armor and slaps on her wig and rides out to rally her troops awaiting the Armada. And as if there weren't enough throughout the riveting two-hour running time to convince you that this is history as it should be told as adventure here we have a breathtaking sequence surrounding the Armada, and it suddenly strikes you: This is the first historical epic of the post-Lord of the Rings era, an astonishing movie that sings with that same kind of fictional might and muscle, creating a place that, for all that it's lost in the past, feels like a distant land we might, in fact, visit today.