Saturday, November 10, 2007

Mike, it’s all an illusion

As a special treat, the Dr took me to Brixton last night to see “Elizabeth II”, also known as “The Golden Age”. We had to wait nearly 40 minutes for my pizza, and then discovered we’d been given tickets for the performance three hours previously. Once we’d got seats, the rat from Ratatouille asked if we’d kill a policeman, steal his helmet, shit in it and then send it to his widow. And there were the usual trailers for films that might be a bit like what we’d paid for – films with History and Proper Acting.

They ought to have trailered The Golden Compass, Beowulf and other adventures. Elizabeth is a glorious, good-looking, finely played whirl of national myth-making. But it’s also total baloney.

After the events of film one, we rejoin Elizabeth in 1588. She’s beginning to notice her age, looking sadly at her bits in the mirror. The various princes on offer as husbands are all a bit rubbish – though she does get rid of one of them just when they’re getting on. And then three things happen at once: the imprisoned, former Queen of Scotland seems to be planning something against her; Elizabeth’s brother-in-law the king of Spain seems to be planning something too; and there’s this dashing pirate just turned up with potatoes and good shit for smoking.

Like the first film, this creates a vivid world of huge castles and densely packed poverty. The use of so many period locations and the wealth of bosom-squashing costumes help convince us of a complex and real setting.

That said, it did also remind me quite a lot of The Lord of the Rings. Partly, the castles have the same Norman zigzags and arches pilfered for Middle Earth. But there were also several set-ups in which main characters stood moodily in the foreground, looking out over sprawling CGI. There’s a CGI forest being hacked down; there’s a CGI ocean on fire. There’s also lots of bits of cameras spinning around people, and stirring music over people just gazing.

More importantly, the intrigues of not-a-softy Walter and Elizabeth ride rough-shod through stuff that’s not just well known, it’s on the national curriculum. They don’t use the “heart and stomach of a concrete elephant” speech, and the defeat of the Armada seems to take place in the English Channel.

Yes, the film does make a thing about the queen getting on a bit; she is starting to get a few wrinkles. (Her bare bum still looks quite pert, though.) Yet in 1588 Elizabeth would have been 55 years-old (the same age, for example, as Bill Hartnell in November ’63). The film also concludes, as if it means something, that Philip II then died a mere 10 years later – just five in advance of Elizabeth. These things would both be less troubling if the film didn’t end by reminding us in big letters when it was Elizabeth got born and died.

Mary Queen of Scots was French and spoke with a French accent. She was executed a good four years before the Armada set sail, and when they raised her traitorous, severed head to the audience, it dropped from the wig and bounced across the floor. Though I can see that would have spoiled the effect the film went for.

It would have been good to at least have glimpsed her son, which would have prefigured the inevitable third movie. It would have been good to understand that Elizabeth had already spared Mary’s life; and that the Scottish wanted to kill her.

It was also odd how much this was a war with Spain, and not with the rest of (what the Elizabethan’s would have perceived as) the world. Philip II didn’t just have the Catholic church on his side; he was part of a vast sprawl of interconnecting families that pretty much ruled all of Europe.

Importantly, he’d also been married to Elizabeth’s elder half-sister, Bloody Mary. They married in Winchester Cathedral (I think one of the locations of the film, based on what seemed a familiar bit of cloister). Though English law didn’t acknowledge him as any kind of heir (he was not, in Mary’s lifetime, a king of England), this was also part of his claim.

It’s also important that England’s monarchy had been much fought over for more than a century until Elizabeth’s grandfather won the battle of Bosworth Field – just a century prior to the Armada. Without a husband, without an heir, Elizabeth left England with an uncertain future…

I did like the stuff about Elizabeth setting a precedent by executing a queen for crimes against the state. There’s a nice exchange with Walsingham, where he explains that kings and princes may be above such things as legalities, but the law is there to protect the people. The precedent Elizabeth sets by condemning Mary will fall on Mary’s grandson…

I also quite liked what they did with the hubris of holy war – there’s a rather nice bit of scarlet-robed priests tiptoeing away from Philip. But I’m not sure it really worked in the way I think it was meant: rather than Elizabeth’s tolerant, protestant humility being more on the side of the angels, it felt like two fingers to God.

This wasn’t helped by a silly contrivance, in which Elizabeth steps out into the drizzle in her nightie to watch the Armada from what I think is meant to be the white cliffs at Dover Tilbury. Yes, it contrasts her simple English humility with the pride of the Spanish, but she’s liable at least to catch a sniffle. And, when they then show the storm and great waves crashing against rocks, I thought for a moment she’d been swept into the sea. (Where a strong swimming pirate would be ready to rescue her.)

There’s also much made of a horse on a ship that’s then seen swimming in the water – which just reminded me of the flood-confused bloodhound towards the end of the Coens’ Oh Brother. A fine line exists between the profound and the stupid.

The Armada wasn’t just destroyed in the Channel, but had to make a slow journey round the whole of the British Isles, caught be more storms and wreckers and starvation. It was an arduous and ever more humiliating defeat, and there’s an argument that the enemy was defeated by the whole of Britain (and not just some brave pirates and their fire-ships). That would, surely, have worked better with the themes of the film.

There’s some tedious stuff about destiny and the rise and fall of great empires, which I assume was a call out to any Americans watching. The holy war against the infidel Brits (and their American allies) also seemed a bit too unsubtle. I don’t remember the first film being so crude about the links to today.

It also concludes with a rather desperate attempt to then claim the period that followed as the golden age. But England was still at war in Europe, and its future uncertain what Elizabeth not having an heir. And the killing of the Queen of Scots had set a precedent that would define the next century… I came away feeling that the film wanted it both ways, that 1588 was the best of times and the worst of times.

This stuff bothered me as we made our way home (on trains full of middle-aged punks who’d seen the Sex Pistols). It’s a good, enjoyable film but it didn’t need to be quite so much hokum.

Jonathan Ross’s review on Film 007 was effectively that it looks so wondrous and is played so well we shouldn’t worry about a little monkeying about with the history. There’s probably an argument that these tinkerings make the plot structure and character journeys more cohesive, in ways which Robert McKee might approve.

I imagined what I’d say to him in response, and an analogy he’d understand. It bothers me like the Joker killing Bruce Wayne’s parents in Batman. No, it doesn’t really matter that the films excise Joe Chill. But it adds a convenient portentousness to the relationship of the two lead characters if they’ve always been linked.

“This is a story,” it says, rather than, “this really happened.” The “truth” is good enough for the story, and you don’t make it any better by changing it. And by changing it, making it more explicitly a story, you’re implicitly saying, “These events don’t really matter…”

1 comment:

Leslie said...

Haha, I blogged about this too. And basically had the same things to say.