While “Elizabeth” earned Cate Blanchett a well-deserved Oscar nomination and a reputation for fierce, fearless performances, Shekhar Kapur’s middling sequel climbs aboard the taut shoulders of its now-established star and hangs on for dear life. It’s a bumpy ride, not because Blanchett shies from the challenge — once again, her depiction of the supposed Virgin Queen is spirited and forceful — but because “The Golden Age” is more interested in flash and bombast than in a serious retelling of history.
Not that “Elizabeth” was much concerned with the more mundane details of her majesty’s ascent to power. Michael Hirst’s screenplay offered an elegantly rewritten history that seemed to capture the essence of a character struggling to cope with the trappings of power while ruling, at a very young age, over the world’s most expansive empire. As the coming-of-age queen, Blanchett was a portrait of youthful insecurity, naked ambition and steely determination.
In “The Golden Age,” she seems somehow weaker, driven to graceless petulance by her passion for Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), the chiseled seafarer eager to colonize the Americas.
She is taken by his superficial charms and reduced to a jealous schoolgirl when he seduces her handmaid and only friend, Elizabeth (Abbie Cornish). It is a turn made embarrassingly convincing by Blanchett, as Hirst and William Nicholson’s screenplay does its best to undercut the image of the defiantly strong monarch presented in “Elizabeth.”
It is not until Philip II (Jordi Mollà) and his Spanish armada approach the English coast that Elizabeth recaptures her stony fortitude, leading Raleigh and a hopelessly outmanned British fleet to victory over the world’s foremost naval force. “The Golden Age” glosses over the event — its profound impact on the balance of global power and its lasting, devastating effect on Spain — a bit too casually, reducing an epic battle to “Die Hard”-style theatrics, set against Craig Armstrong’s blaring score.
“The Golden Age” is modestly engaging, making the most of the goodwill engendered by Kapur’s superior earlier film, but it is hard to take seriously.
Blanchett, who may earn another Oscar nod for her carefully controlled performance as a stern, conflicted and yet painfully vulnerable monarch, is again the director’s greatest asset. His weakness is his tendency to fall back on silly, melodramatic contrivance better suited to popcorn fare than to a believable meditation on Elizabethan England.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age **½
Starring Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Clive Owen, Samantha Morton, Abbie Cornish
Written by William Nicholson, Michael Hirst
Directed by Shekhar Kapur
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes