October 31, 2007 5:29 pm

From virgin queen to Tudor woes

For all the shortcomings of its clunky, stubbornly anachronistic dialogue, the first instalment of the Elizabeth saga packed a real punch. It looked wonderful, was built around Cate Blanchett’s considered portrait of the princess ascending to the throne and iconhood, and, thanks to Shekhar Kapur’s direction, made great play out of the idea of the Tudor court as a proto-Cosa Nostra hive of intrigue, the whole film being pitched as a kind of 16th-century version of The Godfather. The story ended strikingly with Blanchett’s Elizabeth having assumed the persona of the mighty virgin queen with which we are all familiar.

While Blanchett’s career since has been set on a course of almost uninterrupted artistic and commercial success, Kapur’s has dipped somewhat, but they have been reunited for Elizabeth: The Golden Age . Also returning are Geoffrey Rush – whose performance as Walsingham was central to the success of the first film – and writer Michael Hirst, who is responsible for the recent small-screen romp The Tudors. Hirst created the screenplay for this follow-up with the help of William Nicholson, and the film sets out to explore how Elizabeth cemented her power and, in establishing herself as a great ruler, also found herself ever more isolated. The problem is that, although it has ideas, it lacks the dramatic conceit and narrative thrust that made the original so riveting.

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Blanchett is as good as she was first time round, Samantha Morton is amusing and a touch camp as Mary Queen of Scots, and Clive Owen smoulders in the tricky, at times absurdly buccaneering role of Walter Raleigh. The plan was apparently to present a more complex story, but things just get muddled and even – in the climactic defeat of the Armada – very nearly risible. While Kapur was plainly shooting for a Tudor equivalent of The Godfather Part II, this seems too often confused, directionless and almost pointless – more like The Godfather Part III, in fact.

Asked why there was so much bloodshed in Pierrot Le Fou, Jean-Luc Godard famously replied: “That’s not blood, that’s red.” That being the case, 30 Days of Night is surely the reddest film of the year so far. It also boasts perhaps the neatest premise of 2007, as a colony of vampires head for Barrow, Alaska, in the run-up to midwinter, drawn by the promise of a month without sun in which to indulge their grisly appetites.

So far so smart. The geography of the place and the individual quirks of the central characters are efficiently laid out, and there are several gut-wrenching set-pieces using an almost identical style of jerky bloodsucking action to that used to such effect earlier this year in 28 Weeks Later. There’s a clever twist late on, and the bold decision was taken to give the bloodsuckers a language of their own, although this may provoke more mirth than terror in some audiences. But, bewilderingly in a film that has been created with such care, things unravel increasingly as the story progresses, the passage of time is treated as a kind of narrative inconvenience, and the ending seems very nearly perfunctory.

Oddly, 30 Days of Night and The Lookout both feature a character suffering from asthma whose dependence on an inhaler will play a crucial role in the plot. The Lookout starts rather like David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, with a car crash that changes the life of the driver, Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The story then becomes a mix of Memento and a heist movie. As the man responsible for the screenplays for such mazy, contrived thrillers as Dead Again and Malice, writer and first-time director Scott Frank has pedigree but, despite the presence of the ever-excellent Jeff Daniels as Pratt’s blind friend and flatmate, those expecting a satisfying, complex crime movie will be disappointed by this flaccid, resolutely twist-free affair.

Lindsay Anderson was a major figure in British film and theatre, and his friend and regular collaborator Malcolm McDowell has mined his own store of memories of Anderson to create a one-man stage show that has attracted favourable notices on both sides of the Atlantic. Never Apologise: A Personal Visit with Lindsay Anderson is a somewhat stilted film record of that show – no attempt is made to render this properly cinematic and the sound quality is notably shabby. Similarly, anyone after witty showbiz anecdotes with pleasing punchlines will be frustrated, and McDowell doesn’t present Anderson as anything other than what he was – a notoriously prickly character and an intellectual snob. But this does constitute a distinctive memoir and should encourage viewers to seek out, if they dare, Anderson’s collected letters and diaries.

Those after non-fiction of a more straightforwardly uplifting variety should seek out Shadow of the Moon (David Sington), which is essentially a celluloid version of Moondust, the book in which Andrew Smith set out to speak to all the surviving astronauts who had set foot on the moon. The film is stirring stuff, packed with as many beautiful images as portentous outbursts. Several of the best contributions come from Mike Collins, who remains cheerful and unpretentious, and refreshingly unbothered by the fact that he was the only one of the three members of the Apollo 11 mission not to make it to the moon’s surface.

Interview (Steve Buscemi) is the first of three proposed American remakes of films made by the late Theo Van Gogh. Buscemi himself plays a political journalist forced to slum it as a celebrity interviewer, his latest subject being the B-movie star Katya (Sienna Miller almost rehashing her screwed-up turn from Factory Girl). In effect a two-hander, this is a talky, tricksy but never particularly convincing or involving drama.

Finally come four comedies all involving the travails of stubbornly single men. The pick of the bunch, although far from wholly successful, is Man of the Year (Barry Levinson), which comes across as a mix of two previous Levinson films, the political satire Wag the Dog and the fanciful supposed biopic Good Morning Vietnam. Robin Williams, the star of the latter, gets plenty of opportunity to do what he does best, and he relishes the opportunity to improvise wildly in the role of a political chat show host who finds himself first an unlikely president and then at the heart of a conspiracy theory. There are good moments, although it doesn’t work properly either as a satirical thriller or a rom-com.

I Do (Eric Lartigau) is the stilted, intermittently winsome story of a 43-year-old Parisian man’s plan to fake a relationship with a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) to appease his intrusive family, and is thus of the school of La cage aux folles, Mon meilleur ami and Green Card.

Well worth avoiding are The Brothers Solomon (Bob Odenkirk) a dismal gross-out comedy – essentially Dumb and Dumber with no wit or charm – and, even worse, Death at a Funeral (Frank Oz). A staggeringly inept farce, it wastes a strong cast and, in a couple of months, may just pip The All Together for the unenviable award of Worst British Comedy Film of the Year.

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