When Cate Blanchett and director Shekhar Kapur first teamed up for “Elizabeth” (1998), they knocked the period historical drama on its ear, creating a portrait of a legendary historical personage that was sexy, suspenseful and vital. Alas, “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” gives the Virgin Queen her distance back, with an extra layer of dullness to boot.
The film begins in 1585, with Elizabeth (Blanchett) constantly entertaining a parade of suitors. But the man who turns her head is the roguish Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), who returns from the New World with lots of gold, much of it plundered from Spanish vessels. The Spanish, of course, hate Raleigh, but they’ve got other issues with Elizabeth — mainly, that they’d like to remove her from the throne and replace her with the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton).
(Incidentally, here’s hoping the distributors of “Elizabeth: TGA” aren’t expecting to be a hit in Spain. The film depicts everyone on the Iberian peninsula as a black-clad, wild-eyed Catholic fanatic.)
We get a lot of Elizabeth torn between her duties and her needs (“I have given England my life,” she laments. “Must I also give my soul?”), while she and Raleigh chastely flirt. Raleigh, meanwhile, has a more physical relationship with the queen’s lady-in-waiting Bess (Abbie Cornish, making like Nicole Kidman), eventually leading to the girl’s pregnancy. And just when we’ve had our fill of “Days of Our 16th Century Lives,” along comes the Spanish Armada to liven things up.
Here’s where “Elizabeth: TGA” gets really bonkers. Blanchett suits up in armors to give her troops a pep talk; the speech is a lukewarm rip-off of the big St. Crispin’s Day monologue in Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” but the scene does offer the sight of both Elizabeth and her horse wearing great wigs. Raleigh, meanwhile, does a saucy lean against the mast of his ship while sailing out to fight the Spanish, as though Owen were impersonating Fabio on the cover of bodice-ripping historical romance novel. And then there’s the defeat of the Armada — oops, spoiler! — which seems to be all about shifting winds and very little to do with British naval supremacy. Moral: God liked Elizabeth better and smote the Spanish on her behalf.
Blanchett’s a fine actress, goodness knows, and her work in the original “Elizabeth” was unassailable. But saddled with this dopey script, she is stuck pulling a series of poses and wearing one ornate gown after another. Owen, coming off the toxically dumb “Shoot ’Em Up,” does a lot of cocky, yeah-you-want-it grinning; he plays Raleigh as nothing more than history’s first Matthew McConaughey.
Audiences going to a sequel of, say, “Saw” or “Daddy Day Care” know deep down that they’re not going to get a movie as satisfying as the original, but it’s a little depressing to see “Elizabeth” suffer from diminishing returns. Here’s hoping Blanchett and Kapur pull the plug on the franchise before we’re stuck with “The Virgin Queen in Outer Space.”