16th Century England, 16th century Europe, Abbie Cornish, Bess Throckmorton, Cate Blanchett, Clive Owen, Elizabeth I, Elizabeth: the Golden Age, Geoffrey Rush, Kings and Queens, Sir Walter Raleigh, Tudor England
Like Elizabeth, Elizabeth: the Golden Age (2007, Shekhar Kapur) is as much about Elizabeth’s (Cate Blanchett) lack of a love life as it is about the plots swirling around her. In this film, the object of her erotic fixation is Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), the famous soldier, explorer and pirate.
Raleigh was something of an adventurer. He fought for the Huguenots in France, helped suppress a rebellion in Ireland, explored the Atlantic Coast of North America (and later on, South America) and founded the ill-fated Roanoke colony in Virginia. He acted a privateer against Spanish ships in the Caribbean, played a minor role in the defense of England during the Armada War, and eventually helped capture Cadiz. He served in three Parliaments and served as governor of Jersey. Perhaps because of his exploits, he became a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, but after Elizabeth died, he was implicated in a plot to prevent her cousin, James Stuart, from inheriting the throne. He was tried and sentenced to death, but James initially spared him. Later on, he participated in an attack on a Spanish colony, and the Spanish ambassador persuaded James to reinstate the death sentence, with the result that Raleigh was executed in 1618. Overall, he lived a life filled with colorful incidents, and his inclusion in EtGA is a reasonable one.
As I noted in my previous post, the film substantially misrepresents his contribution to the Armada War, but since I’ve already discussed that, I’ll focus in this post on the romantic sub-plot.
Early in the film, Elizabeth is being courted by various suitors, including a young Austrian prince who is obviously not a good match for the queen. (Historically, this happened much earlier in Elizabeth’s reign). Raleigh returns to court and immediately attracts the queen’s attention because of his rather more blunt and bold personal style. Unlike the Austrian prince, Raleigh is a real man, and the queen quickly finds herself being fascinated by his stories of adventure. He clearly represents a life she might have had under different circumstances.
Her intermediary with Raleigh is her lady-in-waiting, Bess Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish). The coincidence that the queen and her handmaiden both have the same name allows the film to create a love triangle in which Elizabeth is infatuated with Raleigh, who is interested in her in return but cannot make headway with her because she refuses to marry. So instead he becomes attracted to Bess. Elizabeth herself encourages this, seeing Bess as a stand-in for herself. So in one scene, she orders Bess to practice dancing the volta with Raleigh, despite his protestations that he doesn’t know the steps. (This is clearly a call back to Elizabeth, in which the queen dances twice with the earl of Leicester (Joseph Fiennes), in two rather erotically-charged scenes.) But Elizabeth’s voyeuristic impulses unwittingly encourage Bess to fall in love with Raleigh. Bess gets pregnant and the couple quickly marry.
The problem with this as that since Bess is legally Elizabeth’s ward, it is illegal for her to marry without Elizabeth’s permission. When Elizabeth learns the truth, she furiously beats Bess, expressing both her sexual jealousy and her sense of betrayal. “My bitches wear my collars!” she shouts. The queen imprisons Raleigh, only agreeing to let him out to help fight the Spanish. By the end of the film she has forgiven them. She visits them after the birth of their son, giving him her blessing in a scene that makes it clear she thinks of the baby as the son she cannot have.
The facts here are basically correct, but the chronology is wrong. Raleigh and Throckmorton only married in 1591, three years after the events of the film. Their son died in infancy, and the clandestine marriage remained secret for about another year before Elizabeth got word of it. Both were imprisoned, and Raleigh was released to help in a different campaign against the Spanish.
Overall, this is probably the most accurate portion of the film. All the basic facts are right, and the adjustment of the chronology to make it coincide with the Armada War is not too outrageous. The major problem is that the film assumes that he was Elizabeth’s favorite because she was sexually attracted to him. While that’s certainly possible, there isn’t any special reason to assume that it is so, and it’s another example of Hollywood films reducing the complexities of history to simple romantic relationships. Given that Elizabeth was in her mid-50s by the time of the film, the prospect of a romantic relationship between Elizabeth and Raleigh is a bit unrealistic (although, obviously, older women can certainly develop romantic or sexual fixations), but the fact that Blanchett was in her late 30s when she made this film helps get around that. Presumably Kapur concluded that no one wanted to see a woman in her mid-50s playing a woman in her mid-50s.
Just Because She’s a Queen Doesn’t Mean She Knows How to Govern
In a previous post, I pointed out the ways that Elizabeth undermines the historical Queen Elizabeth I’s agency. It pretty much attributes most of her success to the efforts of Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) while suggesting that her historically-accurate indecisiveness about her marriage was a result of a personal inability to make decisions about her husband. And EtGA unfortunately does the same thing. Elizabeth spends much of the film mooning over Raleigh and then getting viciously angry when another woman beds and marries him. On one level it’s an interesting exploration of the conflicted feelings Elizabeth might have felt about her situation, but on another level it’s demeaning to suggest that one of the most powerful women of her day (perhaps the most powerful) spent most of her time acting like a lovesick cheerleader. The film makes even less effort than Elizabeth to explain that Elizabeth’s decision to remain single was the result of political factors at least as much as personal ones. It’s not especially clear in this film why she can’t marry Raleigh, so the viewer is left to assume that she’s just a fussy woman.
On its own, this might not be too serious an issue. As I said, this is an interesting exploration of the feelings the historical Elizabeth might actually have experienced. But Kapur again combines this plot with a political plot in which Elizabeth is almost entirely reliant on men. The main plot is the Babington Plot, the execution of Mary Stuart, and the Armada War, and Elizabeth is almost entirely passive in this plot. She is the object of the assassination plot, and survives purely because actually killing her is not the true goal of the plot. Walsingham is the active figure in that part of the plot, ferreting out what’s going on and then working to persuade the queen that she owes a duty to her people to execute Mary. During the Armada War, Elizabeth is wracked with fears about her death, and Raleigh has to teach her how to be courageous, after which point she mans up, dons her armor and delivers the film’s rather weak version of the Tilbury Speech, which strips out most of the speech’s stony determination. Elizabeth spent her formative teen years under constant threat during her sister’s reign and was a periodic target of assassination plots for much of her life; the idea that she didn’t know how to manage her own fear is absurd, but that’s what the film is telling us.
The historical Elizabeth was definitely indecisive. She spent years refusing to decide who she would marry, and spent years after that refusing to formally designate her heir (in fact, she may never have made an explicit statement on the subject). She was deeply reluctant to execute Mary Stuart and Walsingham was smart enough to recognize that she needed help taking that step. But while indecision may have been a personal trait, there were also very powerful political reasons for her to not want to take decisive action on issues where there could be no turning back once certain actions had been taken. EtGA hints at the complexity of issues around Mary Stuart when Raleigh observes “Kill a queen and all queens are mortal.” But even here the film implies that the issue is Elizabeth’s inability to acknowledge her own mortality, rather than her understanding that her political position was stronger when her subjects saw her as being more than human.
The film offers one other moment intended to reveal her personal feelings. After being out in public all dressed up, she sits in front of a mirror, takes off her wig, and contemplates the fact that she’s aging and starting to have wrinkles. I think this was intended to explore the contrast between her glamorous political persona and the reality of her humanity, but it has the unfortunate side effect of reinforcing the notion that women are primarily concerned about their physical appearance and not growing old. And the fact that Blanchett looks remarkable good for a woman who’s supposed to be in her mid-50s just reinforces the unreasonable beauty standards Hollywood forces on women.
Most films about historical leaders take at least some effort to explore the political issues they dealt with. Imagine, if you will, a film about George Washington in which his only motive for fighting the British was his love for Martha, or a film in which Winston Churchill was fighting World War II out of a sense of sexual rivalry with Adolf Hitler. In Braveheart, Wallace at least claims that his rebellion is about “freedom”, whatever he means by that. And yet, in this film, with its female leader, the politics virtually vanish or are given into the hands of men, and the queen is mostly driven by personal motives revolving around her frustrated sexual desires and her inability to make up her mind about anything that matters.
After watching this film, I think one could be forgiven for assuming that Elizabeth’s primary historical significance is that she had really great fashion sense and knew how to get the best camera angles, and not that she was one of the most effective and consequential rulers in British history. Second-wave feminists insisted that the personal is political, but in this film, the political is all personal.
Want to Know More?
Elizabeth: The Golden Ageis available on Amazon.
Elizabeth has been the subject of dozens of biographies, many of them not very good. For a current scholarly view of her, try David Loades’ Elizabeth I.
If you’re interested in Sir Walter Raleigh, you might think about getting Sir Walter Raleigh: In Life and Legend(Kindle edition).
Thank you – this is a wonderful, reasoned take down of this film. It frustrates me because Elizabeth I has the potential to be such a rich character, and Cate Blanchett has the acting chops to radiate royal authority and communicate that nuance, and yet, the film leaves so much to be desired. Elizabeth I here is, as you say, little more than a lovesick cheerleader. It reminds me of those conspiracy theories that suggest that Elizabeth I was a man; apparently no one believes that an intelligent woman of that era could have been such a competent monarch. This film merely uses a different approach to minimize her achievements.
Yeah, these two films really frustrate me because of the way they subtly but completely undermine Elizabeth. Her agency is generally thwarted, and the second film really treats her as a bitter old spinster.