Last fall, critics pretty much jeered at Elizabeth: The Golden Age, director Shekhar Kapur's who-asked-for-it? sequel to 1998's Elizabeth. Following Cate Blanchett's surprise Best Actress nomination for this year's Academy Awards, the Feb. 5 DVD release of Elizabeth: The Golden Age invites a look by viewers scared away from the theatrical release.
It's not like the original Elizabeth was a great film, with its lurid violence, murky interiors and even more inscrutable plotting. It was, however, a great showcase for then-29-year-old Blanchett, who portrayed the political rise (and personal disappointments) of Elizabeth I with the charisma and versatility of a Golden Age movie star, as well as some of the internalized acting of a contemporary method actor. In an era when so many name-above-the-title screen stars seem like overgrown teenagers, Blanchett came across as an exception, youthful but mature.
It's hard to blame Blanchett for wanting to return to as juicy a role as Elizabeth I. The same year she was nominated for Elizabeth, Judi Dench won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her brief appearance as an older Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love. Incidentally, in 2003 Atlanta's Jessica Phelps West offered a superb, regal performance of the queen in Theatre in the Square's Mary Stuart, a play that covers some of the same ground as The Golden Age, while having about 10 times more wisdom.
Blanchett carries herself as every inch the queen in The Golden Age, teasing with her ladies-in-waiting, flirting with the preposterously hunky Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen, bursting out of various puffy shirts) and challenging snide Spanish ambassadors. Blanchett even manages to look beautiful and dignified in a film with some of the most outlandish costumes and makeup since The Fifth Element. (Not surprisingly, The Golden Age also picked up a Best Costume Design nomination.) Perhaps Shakur's historical insights reach no further than providing a character study of the Virgin Queen, since the dialogue rings more true (or at least less false) in the scenes with Blanchett, who sympathetically conveys the queen's powers and her limitations.
Otherwise, The Golden Age's portrayal of political skulduggery in the 1580s is silly and lurid. England's gravest threat (as presented here) comes from Spain, which is populated by Catholic fanatics so over-the-top evil, they're like escapees from an Exorcist movie. Samantha Morton flounces around and throws tantrums as Mary, Queen of Scots, while Geoffrey Rush gets precious little to do as Elizabeth's right-hand schemer, Walsingham (despite earning an Oscar nomination for the same role in the previous film). As the film builds to a pitched battle between the Spanish Armada and the English Navy, it turns so melodramatic and over-the-top it makes Pirates of the Caribbean look like gritty realism by comparison. Pretty, painterly images, though.
Blanchett's worst moment is the film's signature shot, with Elizabeth I giving a pep talk to the troops while riding on a white horse that looks like it has a bad weave (or maybe it's the unicorn from Legend, missing its horn). Blanchett looks like she can barely control the horse and is on the verge of sliding off altogether. One hopes she'll choose more reliable mounts in the future.