Cate Blanchett As Queen Elizabeth In 'Elizabeth: The Golden Age'

Finally, Queen Cate reigns again in Hollywood. Almost 10 years after her breakout performance as Elizabeth I - the role that introduced Cate Blanchett to Hollywood and bestowed on her the aura of thespian nobility - she has resumed the throne.

Blanchett took her time to give her assent to a sequel to Shekhar Kapur's 1998 film. The script had to make the case for going back to it, she says. In between, she snagged an Oscar for playing Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator.

The early reaction to Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which so far has been released only in the US, has been less giddy than it was for the original. But if there has been one constant about Blanchett's film career, it's this: critics can damn the film and exalt the star all in one sentence. Trade paper Variety's take on the second Elizabeth: "It's a bravura, Oscar-calibre turn from Blanchett. But the film, as pageantry-fashion parade of a sequel, is two notches below the first film."

The new film picks up from where the first one left off. It's 1585 and Elizabeth, still unmarried and without an heir, has reigned over Protestant England for three decades. In an era of religious fundamentalism that Kapur likens to our own, Elizabeth's right-hand man, Walsingham, is ruthless in his efforts to root out Catholic insurgents at the court.

And Elizabeth's court in Tudor England, as Kapur has cast it, shares some resemblance to Earls Court in 20th-century London: it is full of Australians. Geoffrey Rush reprises his role as Walsingham from the first film and Abbie Cornish plays a pivotal role as the Queen's lady-in-waiting, Bess.

"I wasn't dead against doing this; it was just like, well, show me the script," Blanchett says. "Someone will approach you and say, 'Why don't you play Amelia Earhart or Pope Joan?' and it's, like, great character but what's the story? Otherwise you can end up with all these iconoclastic women telling the same story.

"I can see why some people don't like this film but it was for some of the same reasons that I wanted to do it. This film manages to explore some entirely new themes. It proves that timing is everything. This time it is a film about religious extremism and holy war and also it's a film about a woman approaching middle age and not having a child. I think those things are very pertinent in modern dilemmas, so I think it was the right time to do it."

As she says, timing is everything. Including, perhaps, the dramatic shift in gears in Blanchett's professional and private life that the new year will bring. The actor, 38, and her husband of 10 years, writer Andrew Upton, 41, become co-artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company on January 1. They share a three-year appointment with wide latitude to shape the repertoire, casting and focus of one of the city's vital cultural institutions.

Upton has been on deck at the Wharf for most of this year as an artistic associate to outgoing director Robyn Nevin. His play Riflemind opened at the STC this week. Meanwhile, Blanchett has been finalising a typically eclectic mix of movies before she cuts back to what she calls "a holding pattern" in the diverse projects that have been her life for a decade or so.

She has appeared as Bob Dylan in the audacious movie I'm Not There by maverick director Todd Haynes. And as a change of pace, she was in Hawaii in recent weeks doing the long-awaited fourth instalment of Indiana Jones for Steven Spielberg, perhaps with an eye to having something to show her two young sons, Dashiel, 5, and Roman, 3, who as usual were on set with her. And wrapping shortly is a performance opposite her friend and recurring collaborator, Brad Pitt, on the F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation The Curious Case of Benjamin Button for director David Fincher.

It's probably not lost on Blanchett that this first phase of full-on movie making - and it can only be phase one because even at the end of a possible second term at the STC she will be a mere 44 - has as its bookends her two Elizabeth forays. The movies that came between them, often at the rate of two or three a year, are a shrewd combination of the high profile (Lord of the Rings trilogy) and cool indie projects (The Life Aquatic).

Even the ones that were too confronting to win big audiences or charm critics (Coffee and Cigarettes in 2003, Bandits in 2001 and The Man Who Cried in 2000) were greeted as remarkable personal triumphs simply because she was so good in material that was so bad. Somehow even her judgment wasn't questioned. The ultimate get-out-of-jail-free sentence begins: "The saving grace is Blanchett... "

So does she feel she will be more exposed in her new job where the buck - for everything from cost overruns to controversial repertoire decisions - will stop at the offices of the two co-directors? Previous occupants have found themselves embroiled in some infamous theatrical dust-ups. Playwright David Williamson's dispute over his play Heretic with former artistic director Wayne Harrison, for example, was as vitriolic as they come.

"The decisions you make, the big picture you shape, at a place like the Sydney Theatre Company have to touch on sensitive issues," she says. "It's unavoidable. Or else you're not doing your job. That's why I think directing plays, or focusing on a single project, has to be something of a luxury or else you lose the big picture."

It's why Blanchett doesn't seem to be leaving herself much wriggle room in case the perfect director offers her the perfect part in the perfect movie. The "holding pattern" on screen roles that take her out of Sydney for long stretches seems to mean "minimal movie presence".

In Blanchett's movie-star life (phase one) I've crossed paths with her three or four times as she promoted films in New York or Los Angeles. She was serious, focused and on guard to swat down inquiries that strayed too far from the work. In a Los Angeles hotel room, I show Blanchett a copy of the cover of the ultra chic fashion monthly W. She appears tanned with sun-bleached hair wearing a Ralph Lauren white shirt that is damp, unbuttoned and clingy. I suggest that the Cate Blanchett of 1998 might have been less co-operative in an exercise of media manipulation and consumer pandering.

"Oh, look, I've definitely mellowed," she says. "You can't be too rigid when you have children and clearly you are a more mature person in your 30s than you are in your 20s. And you do get used to it. But I think once you've reached a certain point of familiarity or whatever that people, particularly in the media, say, 'Lets see her as we've never seen her before!' and I think that's interesting.

"I didn't go to drama school to pose for magazines and I think it's taken me that long to feel comfortable with that notion. My job is to feel comfortable in front of a camera, yes, but all cameras are not the same and not really the camera they use in a fashion shoot.

"The reason I've got more relaxed is that the exponential expansion of the media in the short time that I've been involved in the film industry is astonishing. I'm really grateful that I've been doing this for a while. I can even enjoy it, frankly. I think I've always had a strong sense of what I am interested in and what I am not interested in. And then, again, what might be fun, but I wonder if you even have a choice any more, the media [are] so loud."

The birth of her sons meant modest adjustments while they were toddlers; they enjoyed the attention of film crews, lived on sets that were like adventure playgrounds with departments full of willing and captivating babysitters. The boys even got used to Blanchett going into make-up as their mother and coming out as Irish journalist Veronica Guerin or Galadriel in Lord of the Rings.

"All four of us are in a different place now," she says. "I mean, with the job in Sydney I'm lucky that my husband, who is the best sounding board and has the best judgment in the world, is sharing the job so neither of us feels quite so exposed. But that just means we each have a confidant we totally trust. In films, I suppose, one tests oneself with roles that stretch. This is going to be a stretch that's very much for real. It doesn't mean not making films. It just means not making as many as I have in the last 18 months. And I probably wouldn't want to do that anyway. At a certain point one needs to be less romantic and more strategic about it, as one's children get older and their needs change.

"Up until now they've been going all over the place but now we need to settle down, so these things have come in parallel so that's something I'm ready for. I think my children had a great learning stage for those early years. They're used to being around people and pulling up from one place moving to the next. But they need stability, they need to put down roots now and their parents need to have a structure that bears some semblance to a routine. And then suddenly this job comes along for both of us that gives us a big challenge and do the right thing by the boys."

Elizabeth: The Golden Age opens on November 15.


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