At once more ambitious and less intriguing than its predecessor, Elizabeth: The Golden Age certainly isn't the abject disaster reviewers claimed on its theatrical release, although it's not nearly as engrossing as the original. Unfortunately, while Shekhar Kapur opens up the action and opts for a much lighter palate this time round, with at least a trailer's worth of striking visuals, the results are not particularly compelling. By focusing on the best-known part of the Virgin Queen's reign there's less of the constant sense of danger that marked its predecessor even though it amps up the threat by pitting her not against her own court but the might of the Spanish Empire and its Armada. Yet, being a sequel, it adheres to the `the same but different,' and there's certainly a strong element of déjà vu: the dastardly Catholics are still plotting her death, with Rhys Ifans and Samantha Morton taking on the Daniel Craig and Fanny Ardant roles of Jesuit hitman and conspiring Scottish queen. And, as before, history isn't well served, with the film offering the notion that Philip of Spain conspired to force Elizabeth to execute Mary Queen of Scots to give him an excuse for a holy war.
The script certainly could have been better, running down rather than gaining momentum as the Armada approaches and dropping the ball in many of the obvious slamdunks. Certainly if you're going to omit Elizabeth's famous "I may have the body of a weak and foolish woman, but I have the heart of a king" you need to come up with something with more guts and bravado than the tired horseback speech she gives to rally her troops. Even worse, the Armada itself is something of an anti-climax. The almost painting-like CGi effects aren't as much a problem in a film as occasionally stylised as this as are the all-too obvious budget limitations that reduce it to the odd running commentary that makes it somewhat akin to listening to a football game on the radio.
Performances are highly variable. Blanchett is suitably regal in the lead, with Geoffrey Rush and David Threlfall fare best among the courtiers, but Abbie Cornish makes little impression, Rhys Ifans just seems to be going through the motions and Samantha Morton is fairly awful as Mary. Both bland and risibly hammy at the same time, with her risibly overemphatic delivery she feels like a smug prefect in a school play playing up to the gallery rather than a credible conspiring monarch, giving easily the worst performance in the film even after the worst of her performance hit the cutting room floor. Yet the biggest surprise in the film is Clive Owen's Walter Raleigh.
If at first it seems disastrous casting the zombie-like Owen as the representation of the life and love Elizabeth can never have, but, amazingly, for once he almost rises to the occasion. Like many a bad actor he's utterly hopeless in the moments that aren't about him, looking bored when he's supposed to be listening, displaying complete disinterest in his scenes with Abbie Cornish and sleepwalking through the battle with the Armada, but for once he handles his monologues - the best writing in the film - surprisingly well, even changing his expression a few times, though quite why he chooses to play his early scenes with a bad American accent remains a mystery. It's not a perfect performance (the deleted scenes on the DVD show that his flat delivery and lack of timing botched a gift of a scene with Rush), but for the first time there are signs that if he was willing to really put in the work and had a director who wouldn't mistake talking in a bored Coventry accent for a performance he could be a capable jobbing supporting actor.
The 1.85:1 widescreen transfer is a bit disappointingly short on detail in some scenes, though there are a decent set of extras.