16th Century England, 16th century Europe, Babington Plot, Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth I, Elizabeth: the Golden Age, Geoffrey Rush, Mary Stuart, Religious Issues, Samantha Morton, Sir Francis Walsingham, The Spanish Armada
When I looked at Elizabeth (1998, dir. Shekhar Kapur), I discussed the accusations that the film was anti-Catholic. Similar accusations were made against Elizabeth: the Golden Age (2007, dir. Shekhar Kapur), so I think it’s worth exploring this issue for the sequel.
The accusations came from a variety of different sources. Stephan Greydanus, reviewing the film for the National Catholic Register, said that “Pound for pound, minute for minute, Elizabeth: the Golden Age could possibly contain more sustained [Catholic] church-bashing than any other film I can think of” and argues that the film selectively focuses on creepy Catholic rituals led by imposing clergymen while representing Protestantism with silent prayer and conveniently forgets that Elizabeth’s Act of Uniformity made attendance at Anglican services compulsory. Stephen Whitty of the Star Ledger accuses the film of depicting Catholicism as “some sort of horror-movie cult”. Other critiques of the film make similar points.
So far as I can see, the complaints primarily focus on stylistic issues. Spanish Catholics are portrayed in creepy ways (Jordi Molla’s Philip II has an odd sort of duck-walk, for example). Catholic rituals are shown as dark and mysterious in contrast to Elizabeth’s silent prayers in light-filled chapels, the liturgical Latin is left untranslated, and when the Armada sinks, we get several shots of religious paraphernalia sinking into the waters of the English Channel. Some critics also claims that, much like Elizabeth, all the Catholics in the film are villainous.
And it’s hard to deny that the film does present Spanish Catholicism in rather ominous ways, particularly in the person of Philip II, who possesses unwavering certainty about the righteousness of his cause until he is devastated by the defeat of the Armada. The scenes in Philip’s palace were filmed inside Westminster Cathedral, London’s Catholic cathedral, a not particularly subtle touch for those who recognize the location. The crucifix and rosary sinking into the English Channel is rather heavy-handed.
In the case of Elizabeth, I concluded that the film was anti-Catholic because it actively twists the facts to present most of the Catholics in the film as bad guys, and all the bad guys as Catholics. EtGA, however, doesn’t do that. The Spanish are pretty much entirely villainous, although some of Philip’s advisors lack his certainty. But most of the other Catholics in the film are not especially villainous. Early in the film Bess Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish) has a brief meeting with a Catholic cousin of hers, who begs her for help. He is frightened of the English government and willing to convert to Anglicanism, but Bess refuses to help and leaves. Soon thereafter her cousin is arrested and tortured to death by Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) in a scene that highlights the gruesomeness of Elizabethan interrogation strategies.
Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton) is shown to be involved in the plot that ultimately gets her executed, but the film makes clear that the plot is substantially caused by Walsingham’s machinations; Mary’s plotting is presented as a justified response to her captivity. Her execution is presented in a way that allows the viewer to sympathize with her; she forgives her executioner, and she is shown going to her death wearing a red dress, the Catholic liturgical color for martyrs. In other words, the film stylistically suggests she is an innocent martyr of religious intolerance and not a villain.
In both cases, the film suggests that Walsingham’s actions are as much about religious persecution as about protecting his queen. He kills two desperate Catholics, one of whom actively wishes to be a loyal citizen and the other of whom is driven into plotting by his actions.
The film reinforces this with the plot. By executing Mary Stuart, Walsingham is actually playing into Philip II’s hands by giving Spain a justification to invade England. He admits to Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) that the execution was a mistake, and Elizabeth says that she too has erred by executing her cousin. So the film itself makes a point of saying that the execution of Mary Stuart was the wrong thing to do.
Some of the reviews comment that the film reinforces the notion of murderous Catholic priests in the character of Richard Reston, who is actually John Ballard of the Babington Plot renamed. But what this complaint fails to acknowledge is that John Ballard was actually a Jesuit priest seeking to assassinate Elizabeth, which is exactly what Reston does in this film. Reston is shown killing one of Walsingham’s spies, which never happened, but his role as a planner of the assassination attempt is broadly historically accurate. It’s unreasonable to say that his depiction as ‘murderous’ is anti-Catholic when the man was in real life seeking to orchestrate murder.
So in my opinion, claims that the film demonizes all its Catholic characters are false, and fail to recognize that the film presents Walsingham as driven to unjust actions because of an excess of zeal that he himself eventually recognizes to be a mistake.
Kapur’s Response to the Accusations
Shekhar Kapur insists that the film should not be read as anti-Catholic. “It is anti-extreme forms of religion…So it’s not anti-Catholic. It’s anti an interpretation of the word of God that can be singular.” And this is definitely born out by the structure of the plot itself. Walsingham’s zeal (which is an ambiguous mixture of Protestantism and loyalty to his queen) leads him into a strategic mistake that he repents of. The Armada leaves itself vulnerable to attack by Raleigh’s fire-ships because everyone is praying for victory. At the end of the film, Philip attributes his defeat to his own pride and begs forgiveness of God while his daughter and his clergy turn their backs on him.
Additionally, if the film has wanted to make Catholicism explicitly evil, it could easily have included a famous historical detail. After the Armada was defeated by storms that drove it around the British Isles, the English government issued a commemorative medal that said “Jehovah blew and they were scattered” (Flavit Jehovah et dissipati sunt). In doing so, the English government was asserting that the Armada was defeated through divine intervention because Anglicanism was God’s preferred denomination. The film makes no mention of God’s help in defeating the Armada, which instead happens through Raleigh’s cunning and Spanish zealotry.
As fellow scholar Paul Halsall pointed out to me after my post on Elizabeth’s anti-Catholicism, the traditional English view of English history is heavily steeped in Protestantism and hostility to Catholicism. England’s two post-medieval Catholic monarchs, Mary I and James II, are typically viewed in a very negative light. Elizabeth is praised for her efforts to establish some sort of religious compromise (even though that compromise was fairly prejudicial to Catholics), and the victory over the Armada is seen as a great patriotic success at a time of extreme danger. ‘Good Queen Bess’ was one of the greatest of English monarchs, and her Protestantism is a key part of her identity (even if Elizabeth’s personal religious beliefs are a little unclear). So I think if there are anti-Catholic elements in the film, they are more an artifact of traditional English ideas about Elizabeth and the Armada than any conscious animus on Kapur’s part.
So while the film certainly demonizes the Spanish Catholics, I think Kapur is fair in saying that he’s condemning religious extremism rather than Catholicism per se. The plot of the film depicts both Protestants and Catholics as being capable of religious intolerance. It punishes the Spanish for their intolerance, shows how vulnerable Walsingham’s actions have left England, and displays sympathy for both Protestants (Elizabeth) and Catholics (Mary, Throckmorton’s cousin) who are simply practicing their faith. It may avoid addressing some of the ways that Elizabeth persecuted Catholics, but it does acknowledge that Catholics were persecuted. Its representatives of zealotry are both forced to repent of their actions. The film does resort to some tropes of Catholicism as dark and mysterious but I think that is more due to the fact that, having taken Elizabeth as the heroine of the story, the Spanish must inevitably be cast as the bad guys. If Kapur crosses the line in some of the details of how he depicts Spanish Catholicism, I think he more than balances it out with the way the plot is structured. The film lacks the egregious historical distortions that villainize the Catholics in Elizabeth. So I’m inclined to disagree with the accusations of anti-Catholic bias directed against Elizabeth: the Golden Age.
Want to Know More?
Elizabeth: The Golden Ageis available on Amazon.