1998’s Elizabeth was a thrilling mix of court conspiracies and black-hearted powerbrokering shot like a gothic horror film. Cate Blanchett, mostly unknown then, made a huge splash in the title role, turning the historical drama into an arthouse hit. Pulling in nearly $65 million worldwide, Elizabeth went on to earn seven Oscar nominations, including a Best Actress nod for Blanchett.
Scrumptious but shallow, this glittering second chapter in the Queen Elizabeth franchise is unlikely to inspire the same level of Oscar enthusiasm. More costume than costume drama, returning director Shekhar Kapur crafts a lavish feast for the eyes but leaves the heart hungry for emotion and the mind starved for ideas.
It’s 30 years after Elizabeth’s (Blanchett) ascendancy to the throne and every Catholic in England is considered a potential assassin. The pope has declared a holy war against the Protestant queen and England’s enemy Spain has started building an unstoppable armada. Meanwhile, the queen, single and required to maintain her virginal status until wed, struggles to check a sudden infatuation with dashing Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) while her main lady in waiting, Beth Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish), goes positively ga-ga over the adventurer. But amid these romance novel distractions, nefarious plots are afoot and the ever-faithful Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) is on hand to outflank those who would do her highness harm.
Though not nearly as smart, intricately plotted or grand as its predecessor, the first half of Elizabeth: The Golden Age works best with its backstabbing castle intrigue. The queen’s insidious cousin Mary Stuart (a wasted Samantha Morton) sits imprisoned in her Scottish castle spinning a web of betrayal like a black widow spider. Partnered with Catholic agents, Mary plans to assassinate Elizabeth and open England to Spain’s Inquisition. But Kapur and his screenwriters, William Nicholson and Michael Hirst, try to shove too much material into their two-hour medieval version of Dynasty. The latter half focuses on the battle between the English Navy and the Spanish Armada (rendered mostly in montage), though little attention is given to political alliances or military strategy. If you were to believe The Golden Age, Walter Raleigh (with help from Mother Nature) single- handedly destroyed the entire Spanish fleet. Worse, Elizabeth spends much of the time fretting over England’s fate while throwing jealous tantrums. Only toward the end does she finally engage with the approaching war, propped up on a horse to deliver a half-assed version of Braveheart’s battle cry (which, in turn, was cribbed from Henry V’s St. Crispin’s speech).
It’s not that the film takes too many historical liberties (what historical drama doesn’t?), it’s that the core of the film’s storytelling is unfocused, unevenly paced and filled with clumsy dialogue. There’s plenty of meaty material to be mined from Elizabeth’s middle years — religion, sexual politics, war — but all of it is reduced to backdrop for Karpur’s hysterical and narrowly focused melodrama.
Still, from a purely visual standpoint, Elizabeth: The Golden Age is extravagant eye candy. Karpur is drunk with the power of cinema, composing images that could be hung on a museum wall. The set design is sumptuous, the cinematography is vigorous, and Elizabeth’s dazzling outfits are a drag queen’s dream. Even the bombastic soundtrack explodes with passion and energy. In a way, the film feels like an overwrought Bollywood musical. If only the cast would break into song.
Once again Blanchett is the glue that holds things together. While she doesn’t impress the way she did 10 years ago, her performance firmly captures your attention and occasionally takes flight in a few scenery-chewing moments. Owen is dependably dashing (even if his costume looks like a Pirates of the Caribbean reject) and Cornish is generically appealing as his lady love. Unfortunately, the wonderful Geoffrey Rush hasn’t as much to do this time around and the film suffers without Walsingham’s scheming manipulations.
In the end, Elizabeth: The Golden Age confirms what its predecessor hinted at: that director Karpur is, above all else, a kitschy stylist more concerned with sensual images than historical or political perspective. Though he props up his pageantry with terrific performances, he seems to have little understanding of what made the legendary monarch tick. So, if you’re looking for a meaningful examination of a powerful and complex woman in a complex time, look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for a flick that will send you out of theater humming its costumes, you’ve come to the right place.