Elizabeth: The Golden Age takes place nearly three decades after the events that established the 25-year-old as queen of England in 1558. It arrives nine years after the success of Elizabeth, director Shekhar Kapur's bold, Eastern-influenced historical drama about monarchy and feminine personhood, and a lifetime in celebrity years after Cate Blanchett's blazing performance in the original title role established her as one of the international screen's most shimmering presences. Too bad Kapur's new, glittering sequel also shows up feeling prematurely old, square, and cautious. A production of exquisitely complicated wigs and expensively grand wide shots, it pauses often to admire its own beauty, leery of messing with previous success. The queen, who goes to war and defeats the mighty Spanish Armada before the last trumpet blares, continues to take risks. But The Golden Age plays it safer now that the star is a Star.
The irony is, if ever there were an actress willing and even eager to break free of the mystique ascribed to her, it's Blanchett. Now in her late 30s (never mind that the monarch she plays, in her early 50s, aged even faster in a century lacking good preventive dentistry), Blanchett throws herself into mature queenliness with an unfiltered passion all the more precious for its fiery sincerity; she values the old-Hollywood belief that characters can grow to fit their destinies rather than adjusting their destinies to suit their flavorful personality quirks. And she is commanding as a woman who now knows what she must do for the greater good, however much it contradicts her own personal desires.
This Elizabeth, a Protestant ruler in an era of rising Catholic fundamentalism, faces down aggression from a proselytizing Spanish Catholic king (Jordi Molla) and her own traitorous Catholic cousin Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton). Attracted to the dash and passion of the adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), she accepts her kingdom's rules against union with a commoner and watches in pain as he falls for her own favored lady-in-waiting, Bess (Abbie Cornish). Guided by her wily court adviser Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush, back again for satisfying spymastery), she makes difficult choices and big rallying speeches. (''Let them come with the armies of Hell,'' she roars before the armada showdown. ''They will not pass!'' Any echo of Russell Crowe-ish valor is probably not unintentional, since Gladiator scripter William Nicholson joins returning screenwriter Michael Hirst on the job.)
Owen is the right man to meet Blanchett on a playing field of contradictions. Like the woman who plays the queen, he is an actor uninterested in his own beauty, or rather, interested in messing with its expectations. But something has happened between Elizabeth then and now. And since the fault doesn't lie in these stars, I have to conclude that it lies in a current notion of audience tastes: that we are underlings who require a literalism that tamps down Kapur's more daring instincts for East-meets-West historical interpretation. E1 was plenty opulent, but E2 approaches the simplistic in its reliance on great gowns to catch the eye and waves nay armada-drowning torrents of intrusive musical score to direct a viewer's attention. E1 demonstrated the historical competition between Protestantism and Catholicism for dominance of English statehood, but E2 slips into something approaching troubling caricature a shorthand assumption of the Catholic cause as primarily the province of scheming zealots. To telegraph the queen's awakening hots for Sir Walter, the two engage in that old faithful visual substitute for sex, the galloping simultaneous horseback ride; to emphasize her leadership abilities, Elizabeth prepares for a climactic showdown with Spain by letting down her tresses and borrowing from Joan of Arc's armor armoire. (Or is it Russell Crowe's?)
In the midst of all this 1980s-style Masterpiece Theatreism, meanwhile, one young performer sticks out as a reminder that Elizabeth: The Golden Age is, after all, a picture also made with a concern for today's younger tastes in self-actualization. As her majesty's royal favorite, Bess, Cornish (soon to appear in Stop Loss opposite Ryan Phillippe) comes across at every moment as a modern girl testing her girl power. Peach-toned and Australian like Blanchett, and poised in E2 for larger future fame the way Blanchett was in E1, the 25-year-old Cornish is a star with Now appeal synthesized into a production no longer sure what it wants to say about Then. C+