Elizabeth: The Golden Age * 1/2
Like a Harlequin bodice-ripper that's been splattered onto the screen, this sequel to 1998's "Elizabeth" features a hopelessly complicated plot, many heaving bosoms and some of the most stunningly awful dialogue you've ever heard. It takes everything that was so rich about the original film and turns it into unmitigated kitsch.
Get movie listings, reviews, and more at lawrence.com
Like a Harlequin bodice-ripper that's been splattered onto the screen, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" features a hopelessly complicated plot, many heaving bosoms and some of the most stunningly awful dialogue you've ever heard.
This sequel to 1998's surprise hit "Elizabeth" takes everything that was so rich about the original film, chiefly its sinuous, white-knuckle-thriller approach to recounting Queen Elizabeth I's rise to power, and turns it into unmitigated kitsch. Subtlety and humility have long since left the building, only to be replaced by Clive Owen, in billowing linen shirt and tight britches, swinging on a rope from a British naval ship.
Indeed, this is one of those movies that's approximately one cheesy disco song away from turning into its own Chippendales routine.
The story opens in 1585, with Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) in command of an increasingly unstable England. The Spanish king Philip II (Jordi Molla), with his unrivaled armada of ships, is threatening to attack. Elizabeth's trusted adviser, Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), is pressuring the queen to consider marriage, in order to strengthen England's position in Europe and guarantee the continuation of the Tudor line. Meanwhile, in Scotland, Elizabeth's Catholic cousin Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton) is plotting to overthrow the Protestant queen and lay claim to the monarchy.
This is an awful lot of history to squeeze into a two-hour movie, which might explain why "The Golden Age" sometimes feels like the overambitious term project of a high school student in desperate need of some Ritalin. The pacing is breathless, and the tone is overripe; the movie is a full-on assault of facts and historical figures, all of which pass by our eyes in a whoosh of color and movement. The director, once again, is Shekhar Kapur, and he certainly has a sense of pageantry. (Blanchett changes costumes in this movie with the frequency and wild abandon of Diana Ross circa 1974.)
But for anyone looking for an actual story to follow - or, God forbid, an intelligible primer on Elizabethan-era politics - well, you'd probably be better off seeing "Good Luck Chuck." As befitting its tawdry sensibility, "The Golden Age" introduces a stud-muffin love interest for the Virgin Queen, the explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (Owen), who shows up at court one day and immediately starts making goo-goo eyes at Elizabeth.
The dark-eyed, frequently scowling Owen sometimes comes across as a wet blanket onscreen, so it's a treat to see him ham it up so aggressively. Too bad his character is written as a romance-novel cliche, a mischievous rogue who also happens to be ferociously intelligent and courageous.
Increasingly distracted by international affairs, the queen fobs Raleigh off on her beautiful handmaiden (Abbie Cornish), a decision the screenplay (by Michael Hirst and William Nicholson) and the lead actress don't entirely make convincing. There are a number of intriguing possibilities that Blanchett might have explored here - is Elizabeth sexually intimidated by Raleigh? Has she already resigned herself to a lifetime of celibacy? - but this normally peerless actress delivers a surprisingly perfunctory performance.
Her Elizabeth is a familiar type, a commanding alpha female who allows her vulnerability to shine through in flickering moments. Yet none of the character's sexual ardor, or her uncertainty about balancing personal desires with political necessities, comes through. (Far more interesting are the underused supporting players, chiefly Rush, whose Walsingham has turned embittered and exhausted in his old age, and Morton, who plays Mary as if she's channeling both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?")
With its camera that stalked menacingly through underlit corridors, the original film seemed inspired as much by Val Lewton horror movies as it did by English monarchy tales like "A Man for All Seasons" and "The Lion in Winter." But this follow-up, and its swelling musical score (by Craig Armstrong and A.R. Rahmanboth) and noisy, explosion-filled action scenes, seems to have been more inspired by the collected works of Jerry Bruckheimer. By the time England and Spain have gone to war on the high seas and Raleigh starts swinging from that rope like Capt. Blood on a Capt. Morgan's bender, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" has turned so overwrought and idiotic that the only appropriate response is laughter.
It's proof that, even when Hollywood filmmakers set out to deliver a sequel for the grown-ups, they have an uncanny knack for spoiling a very good thing.