We learn a great many things in the opening minutes of Elizabeth: The Golden Age, the sequel to 1998's Elizabeth. The year is 1585. Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) is still queen of England, and a Protestant (which, in the film's lexicon, roughly translates to tolerant, open-minded agnostic). Philip II (Jordi Molla) is the king of Spain, and a Catholic (shorthand for violent religious extremist). Philip hates Elizabeth and is plotting to put her Catholic cousin, Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton), on the throne in her place. Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) has returned from the New World bearing potatoes and tobacco. Raleigh rather likes Elizabeth. Elizabeth rather likes Raleigh. Elizabeth's favored lady-in-waiting, Bess (Abbie Cornish), rather likes Raleigh, too.
The exposition in these early scenes is so dense and devoid of dramatic texture that it seems the entire film might be over within fifteen minutes, like the abstract of a scientific paper. It isn't--though whether or not this is a virtue may be subject to debate. The original Elizabeth was a very good film, if perhaps not quite as good as its reputation. But while the sequel reunited its star (Blanchett), co-star (Geoffrey Rush, as Elizabeth's Machiavellian spymaster Walsingham), director (Shekhar Kapur), and writer (Michael Hirst, here co-writing with William Nicholson), it is an overwrought mess, equally unpersuasive as history and as melodrama.
If the first film was about a frivolous girl who became an iron-willed queen, the second is about an iron-willed queen who melts into girlish frivolity the moment a cute boy shows up. That boy, of course, is Raleigh, who quickly becomes the apex of a tedious love triangle with Elizabeth and Bess at competing corners. Because Elizabeth and Raleigh can't share a bed--Virgin Queen and all that, you know--they instead share some of the most leaden romantic dialogue of the year. Him: "Why be afraid of tomorrow, when today is all we have?" Her: "In another world and at another time, could you have loved me?" Perhaps in another movie.
Blanchett does an impressive job of rising above much of the material she's asked to mouth, but she remains far more compelling (and vastly less irritating) as a fighter than as a lover. Owen's performance, like his earlier turn as the titular lead in King Arthur, suggests that historical drama is really not his strong suit. There's something a little too knowing, even ironic, about his demeanor that undercuts him in such roles. When his Raleigh is told, at one point in the film, "You come here as if from another time," it's hard not to think: No kidding, the 21st century. Rush, meanwhile, whose Walsingham has (sadly) had his screen-time dramatically reduced from the first film, seems somewhat bored and peevish throughout, as if he can't wait for 1590 to roll around so he can have his deathbed scene and cash his check.
The climax of the film, in which Elizabeth's navy defeats the Spanish Armada, seems almost an afterthought, quickly and indifferently staged. Raleigh heroically solo pilots a fire ship into the teeth of the enemy fleet, diving overboard (and, it appears, to the bottom of the English Channel) just in time to avoid the ensuing explosion. The Armada is defeated, and there is much rejoicing. Historical niceties--the fact that in reality Raleigh stayed on shore the whole time, for instance, or that the English fleet was supplemented by Dutch ships and ultimately outnumbered the Spaniards--are left by the wayside. Worse, budgetary limitations seem to have mandated that virtually the entire naval battle be conducted via CGI; at no time is one persuaded that anybody involved is on board a ship or, for that matter, outdoors.
Yet most frustrating of all is Kapur's lurching, self-consciously arty direction. Following the manic, everything-you-ever-needed-to-know-about- Elizabethan-England opener, he frequently slows the movie to an utter standstill: Rush, rush, rush--five drowsy minutes of Raleigh describing the wonders of seafaring; hurry, hurry, hurry--a slo-mo buildup to a conspirator's execution so interminable that it seems the film reel is stuck on its sprockets. Pointless, pretentious camera angles are sprinkled liberally throughout the film--an actor's face glimpsed through a wooden screen or crudely bisected by shadow, a from-the-ceiling shot thrown in at random--as if to distract from the underlying fact that this is a film that has escaped its director's grasp. "I plan to the hilt," Kapur told Entertainment Weekly recently. "Then I go to the set every morning and completely throw myself into panic. All your preparation, all your logic disappears into thin air." Indeed it does.