Cate Blanchett is still one powerful queen and a force to be reckoned with. The film itself, however, is a bombastic soap opera better suited for Masterpiece Theater.
“Elizabeth: The Golden Age” begins almost thirty years after Elizabeth’s rise to power as the Queen of England, which the first film “Elizabeth,” also directed by Shekhar Kapur, depicted. This Elizabeth rules a Protestant nation threatened by Catholic Spain’s King Philip (Jordi Molla) and her own Catholic cousin Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton). While religious war looms overhead, all that seems to be on the Queen’s mind is the dashing explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, played by the pretty but overqualified Clive Owen. He enters the court with a splash, seeking the Queen’s favor in order to pursue his adventures in the New World. Raleigh achieves favor from Elizabeth, who becomes intensely attracted to him, but all goes awry when Raleigh turns his eyes toward her beautiful handmaiden (Abbie Cornish). This is where the supposed historical drama ends and the soap begins.
Screenwriters William Nicholson and Michael Hirst throw away all the rich history of the time period, and instead direct their energy toward nailing less-important costuming details like powdered faces and wigs. This is a film that mistakenly attributes to Raleigh defending England from the Spanish Armada all by his lonesome, while Elizabeth seems more consumed with her sexual frustration and jealousy than with the affairs of her country. Apparently, it never occurred to Kapur that Elizabeth might have actually chosen to remain single in order to avoid sharing her power with a man.
The plot itself is not all that fails in the film; the overly symbolic and melodramatic tone leads to its downfall. Kapur’s first film captured with acute awareness both the mood of the period and Elizabeth’s struggles as ruler and woman. Nine years later, Kapur succeeds only at creating a visually stunning film that may sparkle, but lacks historical authority and substance. Unfortunately, Elizabeth’s ornate costumes shine brighter than she does.
Though Blanchett tries, she cannot single-handedly save this film. “Elizabeth” is the film that catapulted her to stardom as one of the most respected actresses in the business, but this time around the film itself stunts her performance. The overblown stylization presents the Queen as a caricature of herself, not as the complex woman grappling with power, love and war that she actually was.
Owen does his best with the part, but Raleigh is more like a character straight out of a harlequin romance novel than a pillaging explorer. Still, Raleigh does compliment the Queen nicely. Both desire to cast off their God-given gifts (his charm and her power) in the pursuit of freedom. But Raleigh can’t seem to utter a word that isn’t part of some romantically philosophical prophesy. While Owen attempts to maintain an earnest face, it’s difficult for him to deliver a line such as, “Too soon we die, but we do have the chance of love.” Especially considering he’s telling this to the Virgin Queen of England.
King Philip resembles nothing more than a crazed religious freak with a sexual obsession. His most prominent lines include repeatedly referring to Elizabeth as that “whore.” On screen, Philip does not appear to be a king mentally capable of waging war in the first place. His accomplice Mary Stuart is depicted as a twitching, petulant child. Thankfully, we all know Elizabeth chops off her head in the end.
Ultimately, “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” is a soupy melodrama that exploits the talents of Blanchett. Part of the problem may be that we have come to expect too much from sequels, especially ones in direct lineage from Academy Award-winning films. Even so, Kapur presents us with an overly romantic and blasphemous account of Elizabeth’s reign. The Elizabeth we come to know in this film is not the Elizabeth we have come to know in history books. She is moody and jealous, and an impeccable dresser, but she is certainly not fit to be the Queen of England.