In terms of long gestations, this sequel to 1998’s “Elizabeth” doesn’t quite match the recent installment of “Die Hard,” which clocked in at twelve years later, but it comes close. Unfortunately, “The Golden Age” is considerably less than that adjective would suggest—it’s bronze or copper, perhaps, if not iron. But Shekhar Kapur’s continuation of his take on England’s Virgin Queen—played again by the convincingly royal Cate Blanchett—definitely does not glisten, except in the purely visual sense in a few scenes.
The earlier installment, which covered the four years preceding Elizabeth’s accession in 1558 and the first part of her reign took considerable liberties with the historical record, but in refashioning the story in the style of a sixteenth-century “Godfather” saga it exhibited a cheeky flamboyance that was amusing, if hardly profound. “The Golden Age” strives for a similar mixture of dark political machination and woozy romance, but comes across as stilted and juvenile, more Classics Illustrated than classic.
This time around, the script moves ahead to the mid-1580s, but continues to emphasize the queen’s reliance on her canny, manipulative advisor Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush, again ripely Machiavellian) and the same two plot threads. The first involves the continuing struggle between Protestant and Catholic in the realm, with the queen in the sights of her Romish enemies. This time around, however, her foes aren’t the ones in the first movie—the pope played by John Gielgud, Christopher Eccleston’s Duke of Norfolk, Fanny Ardant’s Mary of Guise and Edward Hardwicke’s Arundel (as well as the sinister Jesuit missionary/assassin played by the pre-Bond Daniel Craig)—but a new set, notably King Philip II of Spain (Jordi Molla) and a slew of English conspirators supporting the claims of the queen’s exiled Catholic rival, the deposed Scottish monarch Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton).
That gives the Kapur the opportunity to stage not only the abortive assassination attempt on Elizabeth that leads to Mary’s execution but the attempted Spanish invasion of England via Philip’s grand armada of 1588. But he fumbles them both. The failed assassination is presented in a confused, elliptical fashion that will probably have you scratching your head. And the naval engagement appears to be a mixture of studio-bound closeups alternating with action scenes that look like they were shot in a tank or badly-matched CGI footage. (It does, however, give Blanchett the chance to deliver a supposedly inspiring “Braveheart”-like speech to the troops onshore, dressed in shining armor. The only problem is that in the reaction shots the army looks remarkably puny.)
As if all that weren’t bad enough, Molina plays Philip as so weird, fanatical a figure that the result is almost comic. His nervous smile and spindly legs make him look rather like a bearded Peter Sellers in one of his bad seventies farces, and he’s just about as funny. There’s some compensation in Morton’s strong portrait of Mary; she has an especially good moment when she’s confronted with evidence of her complicity in the plot against Elizabeth, which is truer than anything else in the film.
The second plot element is a romantic one, not unlike the earlier film’s concentration on the young queen’s intense affection for Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes). This time around, it’s a triangle, with Elizabeth coming on to Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), who’s seeking her support for further exploration (and piracy against the Spanish), but who’s attracted instead to the queen’s younger lady-in-waiting, Bess Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish).
Like the political-religious aspect of the picture, this one isn’t treated with historical accuracy, but that’s to be expected. The problem is that as played here, it resembles something lifted from a 1940s costumer from Warner Brothers. The dialogue is pocked with banalities and howlers, making the entire thing sound like the transcript of a hokey Harlequin novel. (We even get the ludicrous moment when Raleigh supposedly casts his cape over a puddle so the queen won’t get her feet wet.) And Owen plays Raleigh as though he realized that the character might have been written for Errol Flynn—with poses and near-winks rather than the remotest attempt at authenticity. So instead of achieving the ripe romanticism it’s striving for, the picture’s love triangle seems vaguely comic instead.
Of course there are some virtues here. The costuming (by Alexandra Byrne) is impressive, the production design (by Guy Hendrix Dyas) elegant, and the cinematography (by Remi Adefarasin) imposing, if sometimes opting for dankness over clarity. (On the other hand, the music score by Craig Armstrong and Ar Rahman is oppressive.) There are moments to savor in the performances of Rush and Morton. And, of course, Blanchett makes a strikingly regal presence even when the script fails her (as in her outbursts over Bess’s pregnancy.)
But Blanchett shouldn’t blame herself overmuch. No less a diva than Bette Davis couldn’t match her first go-around as Elizabeth (in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” in 1939) with her second (in 1955’s “The Virgin Queen”—which also dealt with the monarch’s dealings with Raleigh). Maybe Gloriana casts a sequel hex.